Dun­can Ivi­son en­vi­sions a bor­der­less fu­ture for fac­ul­ties

Fac­ul­ties with­out bor­ders are key to turn­ing mul­ti­dis­ci­plinar­ity into more than a buzz­word and tack­ling change, ar­gues Dun­can Ivi­son

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CON­TENTS - Dun­can Ivi­son is deputy vice-chan­cel­lor (re­search) and pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney.

It has be­come al­most a tru­ism that the fu­ture of re­search is in­escapably mul­tidis­ci­plinary. A com­mit­ment to “mul­ti­dis­ci­plinar­ity” ac­cord­ingly rolls off the tongue of many a univer­sity vice-chan­cel­lor. But what does that term re­ally mean?

At the Univer­sity of Syd­ney, we have been do­ing a lot of think­ing about that. Get­ting be­yond the hype is vi­tal if re­search-in­ten­sive uni­ver­si­ties such as ours are to meet de­mands to make an even greater con­tri­bu­tion to ad­dress­ing prob­lems that gov­ern­ments, civil so­ci­ety and in­dus­try can’t solve on their own.

Obe­sity is a good ex­am­ple. More than 60 per cent of Aus­tralians are obese or over­weight, in­clud­ing 25 per cent of chil­dren. We know that obe­sity is linked to in­creas­ing rates of di­a­betes and car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, which is the lead­ing cause of death glob­ally. The pres­sure this will place on health­care sys­tems will be colos­sal.

We also know why this is hap­pen­ing. We are eat­ing too much of the wrong thing and ex­pend­ing too lit­tle en­ergy. In many ways, this is not a sur­prise: hu­mans have evolved to min­imise their en­ergy con­sump­tion and max­imise their ac­cess to safe and palat­able food. But these adap­tive traits have had un­in­tended con­se­quences. In the Dar­winian mar­ket­place of the mod­ern econ­omy, com­pa­nies pros­per

Our com­mu­nity part­ners re­gard our mul­tidis­ci­plinary ini­tia­tives as an ef­fec­tive way of en­gag­ing with us and an ex­cit­ing re­search agenda

when they sell us the foods we de­sire – even if those foods make us sick. So any “so­lu­tion” to the obe­sity epi­demic will not emerge ex­clu­sively from bio­med­i­cal re­search. We also need to im­prove our un­der­stand­ing of how peo­ple re­spond to our so­cial, cul­tural, his­tor­i­cal, eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ments. This is a mul­tidis­ci­plinary en­deav­our.

In 2013, Syd­ney es­tab­lished the Charles Perkins Cen­tre, a A$350 mil­lion (£190 mil­lion) ini­tia­tive that com­bines a new build­ing with an am­bi­tious pro­gramme of re­search and outreach fo­cused on obe­sity, di­a­betes and car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, bring­ing to­gether sci­en­tists, economists, philoso­phers, lawyers, cre­ative artists and clin­i­cians.

But such ini­tia­tives are not easy to bring to fruition. Uni­ver­si­ties are deeply con­ser­va­tive or­gan­i­sa­tions. Fac­ul­ties, schools and dis­ci­plines shape not only their po­lit­i­cal econ­omy but also the very life course of a re­searcher. You are trained in a dis­ci­pline, pub­lish in your dis­ci­plinary jour­nals and are hired by a de­part­ment or school. Stu­dents, fac­ulty and alumni tend to iden­tify first with their dis­ci­plines – and only then with their uni­ver­si­ties.

There are good rea­sons for this. Deep train­ing in the method­olo­gies and epis­te­molo­gies of a dis­ci­pline en­ables the dis­cov­ery of new knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing. You can’t have great mul­tidis­ci­plinary re­search with­out great dis­ci­plines. Nor does ad­dress­ing grand so­ci­etal chal­lenges mean aban­don­ing ba­sic, dis­cov­eryled re­search: quite the op­po­site. Is­sues such as obe­sity, glob­al­i­sa­tion and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence de­mand the dis­cov­ery of new knowl­edge and cut­ting-edge con­cep­tual in­no­va­tions.

At Syd­ney, we have tried to pur­sue mul­ti­dis­ci­plinar­ity not by pri­ori­tis­ing cer­tain chal­lenges from on high. In­stead, we are iden­ti­fy­ing is­sues with large so­ci­etal im­pacts that also en­gage the pas­sions and ex­per­tise of our re­searchers.

Ad­di­tional ex­am­ples of our 10 whole-ofu­ni­ver­sity mul­tidis­ci­plinary ini­tia­tives (MDIs) in­clude men­tal health and brain sci­ence; nanoscale sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy; trans­la­tional data sci­ence; en­vi­ron­ment and cli­mate change; in­fec­tious dis­eases; China; and South­east Asia.

The trick is to en­sure that the MDIs com­ple­ment and add value to our fac­ul­ties and schools, rather than com­pete with them. Hence, ev­ery mem­ber of an MDI must also be a mem­ber of a fac­ulty or school – and share with it any in­come gen­er­ated through grants or phi­lan­thropy. All of the ini­tia­tives re­port to me, the deputy vice-chan­cel­lor for re­search, and share a gover­nance struc­ture that in­cludes deans, heads of school and se­nior aca­demics.

What we’re dis­cov­er­ing is that this “Syd­ney model” is start­ing to change the shape of the univer­sity. It’s not that fac­ul­ties and schools are be­com­ing less im­por­tant, but that they are be­com­ing more por­ous. We are mov­ing to­wards a model of “fac­ul­ties with­out bor­ders”. In the process, we are be­com­ing a more net­worked in­sti­tu­tion, both in­ter­nally and ex­ter­nally. Our com­mu­nity part­ners re­gard our mul­tidis­ci­plinary ini­tia­tives not only as an ef­fec­tive – and eas­ier – way of en­gag­ing with us, but also as of­fer­ing an ex­cit­ing re­search agenda.

None of this means that dis­ci­plines are no longer im­por­tant, or are slated for re­dun­dancy. But if we are to tackle the most dif­fi­cult so­ci­etal and re­search chal­lenges, it is clear that the grip that dis­ci­plinary cul­ture has on uni­ver­si­ties must be re­laxed some­what.

The shape of re­search is chang­ing. The most suc­cess­ful uni­ver­si­ties of the 21st cen­tury will be those that re­spond cre­atively to these new de­mands and op­por­tu­ni­ties.

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