Because of the depth and breadth of America’s research enterprises, we have a unique opportunity to lead in multidisciplinary research and education. Many key scientific, technological, and societal challenges—among them making the transition to a low-carbon economy and more accurately predicting the affects of climate change—cannot be solved by researchers in any one discipline. And innovation often arises from combining the tools, techniques, insights, and interests of researchers in different fields.
There are a growing number of fruitful research collaborations between engineers and biologists that highlight the importance of multidisciplinary research. Mother Nature has had billions of years to develop amazing solutions to a wide variety of problems, and engineers are interested in using the structure and function of living systems as a source of inspiration. Working with biologists, engineers are studying how geckoes walk up walls, how the microbes in the hind-gut of a termite help it digest wood, the ability of plankton to make exquisite nanostructures at room temperature using seawater, and the ability of beetles to detect a forest fire from 20 miles away.
Although it is important to continue to invest in disciplinary excellence, the federal government should take additional steps to foster interdisciplinary research and education, such as:
- Greater support for small, tightly focused interdisciplinary teams, with grants of at least $1 million to $2 million per year supporting the faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers in 3 to 5 different labs.
- Targeted research solicitations in emerging interdisciplinary areas such as computational biology or biomolecular materials, with review panels capable of evaluating interdisciplinary proposals.
- Increased funding for interdisciplinary training grants that allow graduate students to work at the intersection of two or more disciplines. The NSF has such a program (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship), but this year it will be able to fund only 20 of the 440 proposals it received.
Although the federal government can serve as a catalyst for interdisciplinary research and education, much of the work to build successful collaborations that span disciplines will need to be done by academic institutions, industry, professional societies, and ultimately teams of committed researchers and students. Key roles for these different groups have been identified in a 2004 National Academy of Sciences report, Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research.
For more on CAP’s policies for increasing innovation in science and technology, please see: