Is university structure anti-research?

Putting together different parts of a puzzle often requires more collaboration than comes naturally to universities.

Last week, I suggested a collaboration between veterinary medicine and engineering.

The graduate student in our School of Veterinary Medicine was interested in investigating how accurate the internet could be in tracking the progression of a disease. Meanwhile, the professor in Engineering was an expert in designing software that could extract trends from sources such as Google or Twitter.

It was a natural connection. And I was the only person who knew about it.

To be fair, this is, hopefully, an exaggeration. I had met both researchers while writing our university’s research blog: a monthly article that describes different projects in the university in a public-friendly format. Therefore, anyone who had read the blog over the preceding months might have noticed the overlap between these two topics.

Nevertheless, it was a lucky find and if this is the only cross-department opportunity in the university, I’ll eat my laptop.

The problem is that despite housing an extensive knowledge-base under one roof, universities are extremely badly networked. From graduate research studies onwards, scientists spend all their time in their own department, with research seminars, topic discussions and visitors rarely shared beyond a small group of specialists. This allows academics to collaborate efficiently within their speciality, but communication between departments is poor to nonexistent. Such insulation has two major drawbacks.

Firstly, development of techniques are likely to be duplicated. An algorithm for faster code might be applicable to multiple areas, but be written six different times in six different departments. At best, this is a waste of time. At worst, a case like my colleagues’ mentioned above could see a project stymied when the solution was sitting in the building next door.

Secondly there is no opportunity for interdisciplinary projects. This is particularly apt at the present time, where many of the hottest (and best funded) topics in science involve combined expertise from multiple areas.

Where universities have focussed on promoting cross-department programs, it’s often been with schemes that either sit separately from the main university faculty system or are forced to perch awkwardly on top.

At Hokkaido University, the Faculty of Science is divided into the usual five suspects of Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biological Sciences and Natural History Science. To promote an interdisciplinary graduate program, all faculty members also belong to one of the four different departments in the Graduate School of Science: Mathematics, Condensed Matter Physics, Cosmosciences and Natural History Sciences. As an astrophysicist, I am therefore a member of both the Department of Physics in the Faculty of Science and the Department of Cosmosciences in the Graduate School of Science.

Cosmosciences contains both physicists and earth scientists. This allows graduate studies in astronomy to transcend the traditional boundaries in the Faculty of Science to produce a modern, interdisciplinary program. It is a good idea, except that the researchers are still located and work within their departments in the Faculty of Science.

In short, while the graduate students may take courses with researchers from a broad range of areas, the faculty members themselves never see anyone outside their field. This risks students gaining a wide skill set they will never be able to use as a professional researcher.

In an effort to tackle this problem of active research in interdisciplinary areas, Hokkaido University also has a designated department to bring together teams with mixed expertise. The ‘Institute of Low Temperature Science’ has research groups in glaciology, oceanography, planetary science and astrobiology. Some of its members are also part of Cosmosciences, but I only know this because I’ve covered examples of the Institute’s work for the research blog. Despite the obvious overlap in fields, we sit in separate buildings, have different department seminars and never naturally interact. It therefore forms another isolated unit, albeit with a mix of interests.

This appears to be a universal problem. Universities like Hokkaido are working hard to create specific interdisciplinary projects, but the rigid department structure prevents the communication necessary for new ideas to seed. In order for scientists to maximise the effectiveness of their groups or tackle new interdisciplinary science, the traditional island kingdoms within the university structure need to be broken down, or at least connected by solid information pipelines.

How this is done is less obvious. A general university blog is certainly one method to advertise research, but it needs to have a wide reach. Hokkaido have a number of university grants that are only available if two departments combine to submit the proposal. Another good idea, but it doesn’t overcome the hurdle of discovering these possible connections.

A different initiative might be a seminar program within the university aimed at academics from different disciplines, an annual conference showcasing results from across the campus to mix ideas and generate press interest, or perhaps we need a research-matching program that sets up lunch dates twice a year with a researcher with a similar CV.

OK, the last suggestion was a joke, though I’d probably go.

Feasibly, departments and faculties need to be dissembled entirely and a new university structure developed from the ground up with information-exchange in mind.

The bottom line is either we find a way of re-wiring our universities or we are going to miss the cure for Ebola because the technique needed to find it is currently being applied to the weathering of concrete mixes.

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