Universities ‘must break down barriers between disciplines’

Grand challenges ‘do not fit neatly within disciplinary boundaries’ and neither should science

June 1, 2022
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Universities must push harder to eliminate the persistent barriers that prevent scientists from collaborating, institutional leaders have warned.

Speaking at Times Higher Education’s Asia Summit, conducted in partnership with Fujita Health University in Japan, academics said universities and scientists must resist the instinct to work in siloes.

Megan Kenna, founding executive director of Schmidt Science Fellows – an Oxford-based funding organisation that supports fellowships in science and technology fields – said that the widespread approach to science lay at odds with what was needed to solve global issues.

“Today’s science is often restrictive, narrow and bounded by disciplines,” Dr Kenna said. “Global challenges…do not recognise the neatly labelled disciplinary boxes into which we organise our science.”

She said the problem lay in how science was funded, organised and incentivised. Interdisciplinary researchers – especially young ones – could feel stranded on an “academic island”, lacking communities of peers when so many were hunkered down in narrow areas.

There was also a dearth of incentives to pursue research that took a broad lens, with academics often pushed to affiliate with certain departments from the start of their careers.

As result, the best minds were not being brought to bear on the big, global issues that science ought to be solving.

Arshad Ahmad, vice-chancellor of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), said universities’ drive to produce research often left them pursuing narrowly focused topics.

“The mantra is research intensity, but I think research intensity alone won’t take us where we need to go,” he said.

Dr Ahmad said his institution was looking to replicate a teaching model from the London School of Economics, where a “university core” of lectures brought together experts from different disciplines to give their views on the “most difficult key questions”.

He underscored the need for universities to cast a wide net to ensure they tapped into talent from all backgrounds – something LUMS was working on by offering full fee waivers to 10 per cent of its applicants, including students from rural Pakistan.

He also emphasised the need for students to be empowered as “true partners in learning” so that the opportunity to “look at things differently” was not lost – and so that the benefits of university-generated innovation filtered back into society.

“I think [our] greatest impact is growing [the] number of alumni [who create] social enterprises [that] give back to their own communities,” he told the summit.


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