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Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research and Education: A Practical Guide


On March 28-29, 2011, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the University of Colorado Biofrontiers Institute hosted a workshop entitled “Science on FIRE: Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research and Education.” The workshop brought together more than 150 practitioners, administrators, and funders of interdisciplinary research to identify keys to success and strategies for overcoming barriers. Interdisciplinary approaches are necessarily varied, based on the problem being studied, the institution doing the research, and the individuals involved in the projects. Every project offers broader lessons. The workshop sought to distill these lessons into principles that anyone can use.

The workshop was more than a collection of success stories. Participants spoke frankly about the challenges they have faced and the disappointments they have endured. The incentive and reward systems within many institutions continue to discourage collaboration. Scientific disciplines have different cultures, languages, and standards. Most classes at the undergraduate and graduate levels remain limited by disciplinary boundaries. The workshop participants were not pessimistic about the challenges – they found them barriers to be overcome.

This document, which has been drawn from the presentations and discussions at the workshop, has been written for anyone involved with or interested in interdisciplinary research and education, including funders, administrators, researchers, faculty, and students. It is a practical guide to motivating, organizing, and establishing interdisciplinary programs. It also discusses broad issues that transcend individual programs. This report features descriptions of current programs in sidebars as examples, but not necessarily as models to copy, since every institution and program is different. Some of the information in this guide is basic, and some involves the detailed steps of setting up an interdisciplinary program or center. At the end of each chapter there are suggestions for additional reading and other resources available in print and online.

The “Science on FIRE” workshop was designed to be thought-provoking and provocative. It turned out to be extremely productive as well. We hope that the lessons gleaned from the conversation will help interdisciplinary programs achieve the prominence they need and deserve.