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The Science of Collaboration

May 2, 2013

In the face of rising global competition and increased funding for science, mathematics, engineering and technology, researchers across the spectrum need to develop interdisciplinary collaborations to tackle pressing societal challenges, a conglomerate of scientists declares in a new report.

“What is both possible and necessary is a true conceptual leap from interdisciplinary collaboration to a powerful transdisciplinarity, sweeping together the physical sciences and engineering (PSE) and the life sciences and medicine (LSM),” the report reads.

The report from the Advancing Research in Science and Engineering (ARISE) committee, which includes about 30 representatives from the private sector and universities across the country, acknowledges the “daunting task” of reforming how the U.S. approaches research. It suggests “radical changes” that would affect every stakeholder in the process, from institutions of higher education to government agencies and corporations. The project is overseen by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

While the first ARISE report, released in 2008, focused on promoting high-risk, high-reward research and helping scientists at the onset of their careers, the 2013 edition is broadly speaking dedicated to collaboration.

“Even the term interdisciplinary, which implies a space between disciplines, fails to convey the potential for integration across [physical sciences] and [life sciences],” the report reads. “Perhaps transdisciplinary better captures the extent of integration required: It is the dismantling of disciplinary boundaries, rather than ad hoc collaborations, that could transform the scientific enterprise and deliver the potential to address previously intractable problems.”

Such collaboration could be fostered through several practical measures, including establishing shared research facilities, encouraging partnerships between corporations and universities, and streamlining funding practices, but mainly the research community needs one or more “grand challenges” that inspire scientists across disciplines. Although the report specifies that “[t]o recommend specific grand challenges is beyond the scope of this committee,” it mentions pressing issues such as energy independence, sustainable food production, and preserving the ecosystem.

“The transdisciplinary nature of current scientific and societal challenges -- and the powerful new approaches enabled by the combination of traditionally separate disciplines -- can be fully addressed only by a rethinking of current academic and government funding structures, as well as the traditional relationships among academia, the private sector, and government,” the report reads.

Nancy C. Andrews, dean of the Duke University School of Medicine, said pinpointing such challenges could help boost the recruitment of young scientists.

"I think the grand challenge captures the imagination of the public," Andrews, one of the report's co-authors, said in an interview.

Although the global market is still reeling from the effects of the recent economic downturn, the report notes that there is broad consensus about the need to invest in research.

“In an era of lower tax revenues and many competing demands on spending, a compelling case can nonetheless be made that research spending has been a key driver of U.S. economic vitality and that stagnation or reduction of government support for research would be a shortsighted policy choice,” the report reads.

The report traces how physical sciences and life sciences have followed different paths to where they are today. Physical sciences, on one hand, have traditionally addressed practical concerns, such as the needs of a growing military force; life sciences, on the other hand, have focused on "scientific excellence."

"By recognizing the differences in their cultures, and learning from each field’s past challenges and successes, we have the opportunity to maximize the potential of the U.S. science and technology research enterprise," the report reads. "If government, industry, and academia can be incentivized to work together in new ways, the different approaches to creativity and innovation developed over the years in these very different sectors can be integrated and expanded to their mutual benefit."

The authors acknowledged that past challenges have historically been triggered by the threat of an external aggressor, such as the 1960s space race against the Soviet Union, but said that global issues like climate change could prove to be equally motivating.

"[T]he American psyche loves to have somebody stand up and say our global leadership is threatened," said the co-author Keith R. Yamamoto, executive vice dean of the School of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. "It's a question of how well-enunciated the challenges are."

 

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