Questions Without Borders
“Questions Without Borders” captures the essence of interdisciplinary, globally relevant research that will shape our future, according to distinguished demographer and economic historian Dr. Myron Gutmann. Head of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE), Gutmann sparked a lively conversation Feb. 13 on the challenges of developing more interdisciplinary education in large research universities where established disciplines have traditionally been dominant. With his own scholarly interests in interdisciplinary historical population studies, especially relating population to agriculture, the environment and health, Gutmann understands firsthand the need to strengthen and reward interdisciplinary research and teaching opportunities.
Held at Coffman Theater on the University’s East Bank campus, Gutmann’s talk preceded a panel discussion featuring faculty from several disciplines and moderated by U of M provost Karen Hanson. Hosted by the Institute for Advanced Study, the whole program is available online at http://www.ias.umn.edu/media/MyronGutmann.php.
The future academic research that matters most will be collaborative, multidisciplinary, data intensive, and addressing societal problems and fundamental scientific questions, according to Gutmann and the SBE. To undertake such future research, research universities and supporting institutions, like the NSF, must broaden thinking about science and take more seriously how work at the intersection of traditional disciplines might respond to problems at a global scale. The SBE’s fall 2011 report, Rebuilding the Mosaic: Fostering Research in the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences at the National Science Foundation in the Next Decade, frames innovative research for the year 2020 and beyond that enhances fundamental knowledge and benefits society. In creating the report, SBE invited over 250 white papers on foundational and transformative questions. To be foundational, the questions needed to “reflect deep issues that engage fundamental assumptions behind disciplinary research traditions.” To be transformative, they needed to “seek to leverage current findings to unlock new cycles of research.”
Gutmann and the SBE foresee future interdisciplinary academic work in areas including population, social disparities, communications, new technology, and, perhaps, civic participation. In discussing how NSF funding priorities shape research questions, Gutmann expressed his own view that a participation and governance science project deserves to move forward. He acknowledged that NSF proposals involving complex, interdisciplinary analysis of behavior are the most difficult to adequately review.
The discussion following Gutmann’s remarks covered undergraduate education, graduate level research and teaching, and overall priorities for the research university. J. B. Shank of the Department of History chose bold response, noting the U of M’s “overall approach to undergraduate education is exceedingly Victorian.” David L. Fox of the Department of Earth Sciences and Dominique Tobbell of the Program in the History of Medicine at the Medical School offered more subtle, but no less probing, assessments of the U of M context in interdisciplinary initiatives. Gutmann ended with a challenge to University faculty and staff assembled, asking, “Can you enable students to see potential for their ideas? Can you make it safe for faculty doing interdisciplinary work to grow in their careers?”
Tagged Faculty, Institute for Advanced Study, interdisciplinary, National Science Foundation, research, research university, Social Behavioral and Economic Sciences, sustainability, University of Minnesota