UW News

October 26, 2006

There are barriers to interdisciplinary work, those involved say

News and Information

A capacity crowd of faculty, staff and students generally agreed that incentives for conducting interdisciplinary research and teaching need to be increased, while some substantial barriers need to be lowered.

“I recently had a conversation with a graduate student who is associated with an IGERT (Integrated Graduate Education and Research Traineeship sponsored by the National Science Foundation), who was told by a faculty member, ‘I can’t be your adviser, because the direction you’re headed in your research won’t help my case for tenure,'” said Tom Hinckley, professor of forest resources.

“In addition, another graduate student had a conversation with a senior faculty member who complained that interdisciplinary work was distracting from his ‘real’ laboratory work in the department. We have many opportunities here for doing good interdisciplinary work, but if we don’t lower the barriers it will all be for naught.”

The comments came as a subgroup of the UW Colleges and Schools Organization Committee devoted to the question of interdisciplinarity recently took public comments. Most of the speakers agreed that this work is usually considered an add-on to the normal work load.

“You end up doing one and a half or two jobs and you get exhausted,” said Pat Kuszler, professor of law. “You end up teaching interdisciplinary courses gratis, in addition to the usual teaching and research load. If your time isn’t ‘bought out’ for this work, you feel you are leaving your colleagues in the lurch. The issues are chronic. We need to find a way of dealing with release time and buyouts.” Kuszler added that, in the Law School, interdisciplinary work is regarded as a positive factor for tenure and promotion, although this change is fairly recent.

Kathy Woodward, director of the Simpson Center for the Humanities and chair of the subgroup, pointed out that some junior faculty who engage in interdisciplinary work find that their home department may end up regarding them as not being a good “fit,” which can have a chilling effect on interdisciplinary research.

“Senior faculty need to look out for junior faculty who engage in interdisciplinary research,” said Geraldine Dawson, professor of psychology. “This is a complex issue. We look for evidence of individual effort in tenure decisions. But research is becoming an increasingly collaborative process, so this kind of work shouldn’t be discounted in the tenure process.”

Several participants had suggestions for ways to create incentives for interdisciplinary work. Steve Harrell of anthropology restated a proposal that had been raised earlier by Gail Dubrow, former associate dean of the Graduate School and now at the University of Minnesota, in a report from the UW Network of Interdisciplinary Initiatives last year: Routinely allow senior faculty a percentage of time outside their home department for teaching.

“Maybe, after things are sorted out and senior faculty make their choices across the institution, you will have a more interesting mix of offerings in the department.” Harrell added that there may need to be a different system for balancing the rewards of interdisciplinary work against the perceived losses to the disciplines.

Doug Conrad, professor of health services, noted that about 20 years ago the interdisciplinary degree in health administration received funds from the Public Health Service and the Graduate School, which were used to buy access to courses in business and economics. As those funds dried up, access became more of a problem. “If interdisciplinary work is to grow, it will need financial resources,” he said. “So we will need to judge which courses are more powerful, and allocate resources that stick, as in the UIF (University Initiatives Fund) approach.”

Most major universities are considering this issue and many are ahead of the UW, said Dave Secord, director of the Program on the Environment. “I can name eight or ten peer institutions that are doing a better job,” he said. “No one university has solved all the problems, but collectively they’ve addressed these issues. We need to act because we’re losing talent, both students and faculty.”

The UW should target its efforts by picking interdisciplinary targets of value, said Andrew Light, associate professor of philosophy. “We should look at problems that can’t be solved any other way (besides an interdisciplinary approach), and areas where, by targeted hiring, we can make the UW pre-eminent in a particular field.”

Janice DeCosmo, assistant dean of undergraduate education, endorsed Light’s ideas and added, “We should tie educational goals to research goals in creating these targets. We should think about growing degree programs and new opportunities for students.”

One strategy to greater interdisciplinarity might lie in the creation of more “meta-institutes,” said Dawson. “CHDD (the Center on Human Development and Disability) operates in this way, where shared resources can be assembled that support a variety of interdisciplinary programs effectively.” The UW should try to identify other institutes focused on other topics that could serve the University in a similar way, she said.

Barbara Cochran, associate professor of nursing, pointed out that the University structure does not support the designating of researchers as co-principal investigators on a project for purposes of sharing indirect costs.

Mark Haselkorn, professor of technical communication, commented that this issue is being examined by a Faculty Senate committee. “Right now, indirect costs, which pay for things such as space and phones, can only be allocated to units such as colleges and schools. If a unit can’t own space, then it can’t be allocated indirect costs,” he said.

The interdisciplinarity subcommittee is composed of Woodward; Melissa Austin, professor of epidemiology; Anna Mastroianni, associate professor of law and public health genetics; Anand Yang, director of the Jackson School of International Studies; and Theresa Barker, graduate student. People can send comments to the committee at csoc@u.washington.edu

Woodward commented that Provost Phyllis Wise is keenly interested in finding ways to support interdisciplinary teaching and research better. “The provost is prepared to act on a reasonable and strong recommendation,” she said.