Talking leadership 43: Ana Mari Cauce on promoting interdisciplinarity

The University of Washington leader discusses bridging subject-level siloes, and how academic science can better serve society

九月 27, 2022
Ana Mari Cauce, University of Washington
Source: University of Washington

Heading a top-five US research university – and one where she has worked for her entire career – Ana Mari Cauce knows a thing or two about academic accomplishment.

The University of Washington (UW) is world-class in numerous fields – medicine, engineering, law and business among them. But she is firmly of the view that getting the best from the resources and talents she marshals as president relies on helping those experts to reach beyond individual or disciplinary boundaries.

One of UW’s best-known scholars was Ben Hall, the late professor of genetics who co-created a vaccine for hepatitis B. As a biologist in the 1970s, he studied yeast to understand how genes use RNA to replicate. And, as Cauce explains, he reached his breakthrough on hepatitis by working with UW colleagues of differing scientific backgrounds in joint pursuit of medical advancement.

Creating a true interdisciplinary environment, however, is never just about a leader who recognises that it is a good approach in concept, as lots of universities talk about knocking down subject silos. Getting there is another matter: faculty can be set in their ways, and institutions often struggle to measure achievement outside the tried-and-tested tradition of departmental assessment.

However, Cauce says that the paradigm-busting moment of Covid showed her how much progress could be made by bypassing retrograde traditions and bureaucracies when circumstances demand urgent action.

Yet despite the astonishing success of science and medicine in fighting the pandemic, she feels the general public does not truly understand how much credit researchers deserve for laying the groundwork and rising to the moment. “To this day, I think that we haven’t told enough of the story about the decades of basic research that allowed us to do this,” she says.

The traditional fields of biomedical science, for all their contributions, did not prevent millions of Covid deaths on their own; the stunningly quick development of vaccines and rapid test kits also required strategies for getting them to people and, in many cases, getting them accepted.

“We instituted clinics all over the place,” Cauce says. In the case of UW and the Seattle community, the hands-on response also meant practical interventions such as assembling partners to bring supply trucks into neighbourhoods, where they could reach people unable to travel to clinics.

“We were really able to bring together all this knowledge, both in terms of science but also in terms of policy in a way that created impact,” Cauce says.

She is determined to draw lessons from this tumultuous period that can be applied more broadly and for the longer term.

“What we’re working to do at the University of Washington is really, in a sense, to rewire this very large, very comprehensive institution in a way that can better deliver the solutions to our world’s needs.”

Some of that is about acting “purposefully”, she says, “but some of that is done [differently]: giving serendipity a push”.

One major focus at UW is its Population Health Initiative, a 2016 effort to bring together scientists working on human health, social and economic equity, and environmental resilience to investigate large-scale solutions that lie beyond the scope and reach of those individual sectors.

Its projects include identifying and mitigating factors that worsen health and shorten lifespans in minority communities, with focuses in such areas as improving maternal health and protecting urban green spaces.

Part of that strategy has been the construction of the Hans Rosling Center for Population Health, where researchers from different disciplines are physically brought together to live and work together for extended periods of time.

The idea, Cauce says, is to “make sure that people from different disciplines are talking to each other”.

Of course, such initiatives are not unique in higher education, particularly at better-financed institutions, but UW has other strategies for addressing chronic barriers to – or, as Cauce sees them, excuses against – true interdisciplinary environments.

One involves finding departmental leaders – deans who are truly committed to working beyond their disciplinary boundaries – and making sure everyone under them understands that and is incentivised accordingly. “It really is about what we value,” Cauce says. “One of the things that’s really exciting for me is we very purposefully try to hire deans that are collaborative, and I think we’ve changed the culture here.”

The other big-picture driver is funding. It would be useful, she acknowledges, if the big national funders of research put a greater emphasis on the societal challenges and scientific pathways that need and nurture collaborative outlooks.

But in the meantime, UW is doing that on its own. “One of the things that’s been very effective here has been creating these small grants that pay for someone outside your field to come in,” Cauce says.

Examples include a psychologist proposing a mental health study who is offered a $100,000 (£93,000) grant from university resources if the work includes someone from the School of Public Policy, who could translate the findings into a programme of implementation.

“We’ve been doing that internally. It would be wonderful if we had those kinds of grants at the federal level,” the UW president says.

The overall strategy includes a realisation that efforts to promote a greater interdisciplinary mindset should not be regarded just as something aimed at early career academics whose priorities can be more easily driven by threats and rewards tied to tenure and promotion.

Longer human lifespans, with professors regularly working past age 65, means that academics “spend most of our lives post full professor”, Cauce says.

Any administrators who give up on promoting interdisciplinarity because they see tenure and promotion practices as too immutable is not only mistaken but looking in the wrong place, she argues. In her view, it is too easy to adopt that mentality “as an excuse” for action.

Cauce was raised in Miami after her family emigrated from Cuba, and earned her undergraduate degree in English and psychology at the University of Miami, before moving for her doctorate in psychology at Yale University. She joined the UW faculty in 1986, became provost in 2011 and president in 2015.

Cauce recently co-edited and contributed to Universities as Fifth Power? Opportunities, Risks and Strategies, a book that coalesces some of her ideas about putting academic science more clearly in the service of society, especially during a crisis.

Its title references the idea that universities should be understood – alongside the classic American notion of the three branches of the US government and the media – as a central force in promoting change for the public good.

Referencing her doctoral adviser at Yale, Edmund Gordon, who founded the Head Start preschool programme, she says: “He always taught me to look for the best in people, to try and find ways where you can connect to people.

“We live in a world where too often we look at people who disagree with us as enemies to be vanquished, instead of as potential allies to be won over.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.



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