Jason W Osborne, a leader in U.S. higher education, makes it clear that higher education institutions face several challenges in the near future. Having held leadership positions at Clemson University, Miami University, and the University of Louisville, Osborne recognizes that each institution faces different and numerous challenges, including topics such as cultural shifts in learning, ongoing funding concerns, and the move to online learning.
He also believes a fundamental gap exists in accessing interdisciplinary research for many. This is one of the core concerns Jason W. Osborne has when it comes to the higher education system in the U.S.
Interdisciplinary perspectives lead to transformative Insights
Interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary research, which draws on research that draws from at least two disciplines, can provide innovative solutions to the most urgent and vexing problems we face. Multidisciplinary teams of researchers can bring together different perspectives and comprehensive, in-depth results. Yet, interdisciplinary research is challenging in higher education.
Some complications include differing research methods, or policies or budget models within institutions, while others relate to attitudinal resistance. Still, others are created by differences in languages between various sectors or the availability of training to develop the skills necessary to blend two disciplines into one.
The Difficulty of Securing Funding
As noted by Jason W Osborne, one of the most significant and problematic challenges in interdisciplinary research is the difficulty of obtaining funding for this type of research. Often, research funding is aligned within traditional disciplinary silos – focusing on one area and one topic, and the funding comes from interested bodies within that sector. Funding barriers, including those at the federal level, make this type of research – which has proven benefits to offer – difficult to manage. Scientists find it difficult to obtain support for such programs, and the funds for this research often come from agencies that have very specific, programmatic emphases.
While funding agencies are recently focusing on interdisciplinary approaches to solving problems, it will be a while before this is the cultural norm. Also notable is the peer review component, which is considered a requirement for any successful funding system. That is, having a peer review conducted as a component of the research helps support the theory being introduced. Yet, in a multidisciplinary research path, the definition of who a “peer” is gets in the way of this requirement for obtaining funding. Unless the committee members are familiar with interdisciplinary research and represent multiple fields, peer review may serve as a barrier to progress.
Faculty review and promotion as a barrier
Faculty members must publish, present at prestigious conferences, and often secure funding in order to be promoted and receive tenure. In addition to the traditional (yet improving) situations with funding agencies, faculty face policy and cultural barriers. In some institutions, there are policies describing what journals are more valued in promotion and tenure review, and they are often the ones that have been publishing for the longest. These traditional, respected journals are less likely to be interdisciplinary, and often reluctant to publish truly transdisciplinary or interdisciplinary research that seems outside the core, traditional mission of the journal.
Interdisciplinary journals have been launched in recent decades, but they may be seen as less prestigious or less valuable, with higher acceptance rates and possibly lower impact factors, which limits the value of publishing in them. Similar challenges exist for conferences and granting agencies. Institutions should evaluate how they prioritize and value these outcomes if they want to truly embrace modern interdisciplinary approaches to research, scholarship, and artistry.
Additional Challenges Faced
Beyond the focus of funding, Jason W Osborne sees other challenges present in interdisciplinary research that must be addressed. Those include the following.
Most researchers don’t refute the benefit of this type of research, but they can be less likely to abandon the singular focus they may have been trained within to conduct the work involved. Surveys find that most agree that scientific problems cannot be solved fully without an interdisciplinary approach.
Some scientists have done the opposite, pursuing interdisciplinary efforts with full force once they recognize that they cannot solve the problem within their current discipline range. This allows new ways to approach short answers to questions and to problem-solve with unique expertise or techniques.
Communication barriers are also numerous between disciplines. Jargon is more than just learning from one area to the next. Professional socialization and working within that industry have helped develop a strong understanding of its jargon. For many researchers, interdisciplinary research doesn’t have that type of in-depth background.
Another core area that needs improvement, according to Jason W Osborne, is leadership in this field. As Provost at Miami University, Jason saw many cases where effective leaders were prioritizing and supporting interdisciplinary teaching, scholarship, and service, and worked to reduce barriers to this groundbreaking work. Yet leaders often receive little professional development in how to effectively support their faculty, meaning that unless they seek out ways to better lead interdisciplinary efforts, they may not be well prepared for these challenges.
This makes it challenging to create such teams and then efficiently run them. Coordinating a diverse team of professionals, many of whom have powerful personalities or particular strengths, requires a dynamic group of leaders rather than just one person at the head.
Creating a way forward is complex, but Jason W Osborne and leaders like him understand these challenges can all be solved with a carefully constructed plan, an open mind, and authentic engagement in shared governance.