Other schools are taking similar action. Ohio State University recently hired renowned Berkeley chemist C. Bradley Moore as vice president for research-a position that will help him drive OSU’s own version of selective excellence. Moore describes his challenge as addressing the heightened need to focus research, while extending excellence to more disciplines. “An important aspect of most of these new horizons is that they are fundamentally multidisciplinary-so if you don’t have the strength in most of the disciplines you need, and the ability to build collaborations in the areas where you don’t have the strength, you’re out of luck,” he says.
Even before Moore’s official arrival, OSU’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences was leading the way to this goal-in part through its six-year-old Project Reinvent. Backed by a $1.5 million Kellogg Foundation grant, the college canvassed some 650 faculty, staff and constituents before revealing four prime elements of future success. Two centered around the traditional focus on agricultural production and economic viability. But the remaining pair expanded the program emphasis to address issues of environmental and social responsibility.
These four principles not only guide evaluations of existing efforts but the creation of new programs as well. What’s more, Project Reinvent was launched against the backdrop of a fundamental reorganization that saw the number of academic programs cut from 11 to eight-and much of the rest reoriented. The college launched new partnerships in medicine and cancer research while continuing others in areas such as veterinary medicine, biology, engineering and human ecology. It even teamed with the college of arts and sciences to bring cultural events-music, plays, readings-to rural communities. A few years ago, says dean Bob Moser, the school mustered only a handful of interdisciplinary teams. Today, there are more than 40. “I’m saying three years from now, the majority of what we do will be in a team environment.”
That same outcome isn’t far off target for Stanford University, whose sights are turning increasingly to multidisciplinary research. Few efforts, though, approach the scope of Bio-X, an initiative that blends biology, chemistry, physics, engineering and medicine to explore basic and applied biomedicine and bioengineering. The project, bankrolled by $100 million from Netscape founder Jim Clark, involves the creation of a new facility that will be staffed by some 50 faculty drawn from Stanford’s engineering, medical and humanities and sciences schools. Richard Zare, a project steering committee member, says that although interdisciplinary research has been around for decades, the growing understanding that technological innovation requires diverse skills makes it vital to unite previously individualistic departments. In the case of Bio-X, he says, immunologists and surgeons can team up to overcome organ transplant rejections, or lasers can be combined with the biology of muscle motion to explore molecular motors.