AAAS: A little sharing with colleagues could pave way for solutions

February 15, 2002

This year's AAAS conference covers everything from geometry jokes to science on the box, the atrocities of September 11 and bioterrorism.

What academics call "interdisciplinary" practice has long been both de facto and de rigueur for industries that build and deploy scientifically complex and/or technologically based products. Creating a broad base of expertise has long been the best and most obvious (and often the only) means by which to efficiently solve various Hydra-headed problems and to move a complicated product from concept to market. For several decades, successful research and development organisations have been built, and some of the most revolutionary advances of modern society have been produced using this model.

Traditionally, real-world problems have received little attention within the ivory towers of disciplinary academics. But universities are finding themselves under increased financial pressure to focus their attention on projects with a commercial value. Thus the academy is in the process of being (or, more to the point, has already been) transformed by commercialisation and its Siamese twin, competition.

Academic rhetoric on this subject seems to increase exponentially every year, ranging from a rueful acknowledgment of the situation in books such as Geoffrey D. White and Flannery C. Hauck's Campus, Inc to stacks of academic papers and magazine articles decrying the "colonisation of the academy by the discourses of consumerism, efficiency and market discipline" or words to that effect.

However one feels about this state of affairs, the question is whether this trend toward commercialisation and competition - intimately and fundamentally connected with academic capitalism - makes the practice of interdisciplinary research easier through increasing the opportunities for collaboration, or more difficult by making academics more isolated and fearful of sharing information.

Very few data are published on interdisciplinary research and its practice within the academy, so analysis has to rely on anecdotal evidence or data on commercialisation and competition within the more general university setting, adapted to what is known about interdisciplinary research.

A virtual petri dish for observing these trends is the growing number of interdisciplinary research centres, mostly representing the natural sciences, that are being funded by private donors or the government on various university campuses. Again, though, there are virtually no data on how researchers in these centres interact with one another or with outsiders. The few exceptions include my organisation, The Hybrid Vigor Institute. Funded by the National Science Foundation, it aims to study the social networks and other communications components of several environmental research centres. It is hoped that this will begin the process of identifying and codifying the elements and methodologies of successful interdisciplinary research.

Despite the lack of hard data, one could make a fairly good observational case that most interdisciplinary research projects and centres on university campuses are little more than "boundary organisations", loosely defined, for technology transfer between universities and industry - "quasi-firms," as one researcher calls them.

So does research within these interdisciplinary "technology transfer" centres catalyse collaboration? The answer is yes, and no. By definition, they catalyse collaboration within their centres or their specific projects; whether they are successful depends to a greater or lesser degree on how skilled they are in the art of "being interdisciplinary".

But where such teams are working on projects that can be patented or otherwise commoditised by universities, or are funded by commercial enterprises - meaning that the results are to be held proprietary - they are likely to be required to work in some greater or lesser degree of isolation from the rest of the academic community. They must take care to first secure their patentable intellectual property before publishing research results; holding back early results also allows them to maintain a proprietary head-start on other universities that may be working on similar, patentable problems.

Academics are fiercely competitive even without financial motivation so the commercial aspect may only exacerbate an existing reluctance to reveal too much too soon. But if the responsible practice of research changes at all in response to commercial pressures, which some evidence seems to support, this begs more fundamental questions: how will commercially induced isolation affect the conduct of science and research results in the long term? What effect will commercialisation and competition have on scientific authority and the perception of scientific expertise in global culture - and what will the consequences be?

To the extent that the norms of open science are fragile and may still be considered valuable, preliminary answers to these questions should have particular resonance for those who participate in interdisciplinary, collaborative research projects today.

Denise Caruso Denise Caruso is founder and executive director of The Hybrid Vigor Institute ( http://hybridvigor.org ). The institute's aim is to "demonstrate and encourage new inclusive methods of problem-solving and inquiry". She will be speaking at a symposium on "Communicating across boundaries: accommodating interdisciplinarity in the academic research environment" on February 18.

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