Center to study best methods for interdisciplinary research opens at UNT

Monday, January 5, 2009

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- At many colleges and universities, faculty members from different academic areas work together on research projects on complex issues, such as global climate change, land use management and the epidemiology of certain diseases. Universities also have their own interdisciplinary research centers that focus on a specific theme or problem.

The University of North Texas has opened the nation's first center dedicated to developing the theory and practice of interdisciplinarity, offering faculty members at UNT and other universities a resource for implementing interdisciplinary research and designing interdisciplinary courses.

The Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity -- a term used in academic circles to describe researchers from two or more disciplines pooling and modifying their approaches to solve a problem -- will be located in Rooms 320C, D and E in the Environmental Education, Science and Technology Building. Funded by UNT with a supplemental $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, it is the first center of its kind at a college or university, said Dr. Robert Frodeman, a UNT professor of philosophy and religion studies and the center's director.

Frodeman said the staff of the center, known as CSID, will conduct research into the theory and practice of multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches to knowledge. These approaches differ by the amount of collaboration between researchers in different disciplines and by the degree of interaction between researchers and non-academics.

"Increasingly, the National Science Foundation and other funding agencies are requesting interdisciplinary proposals for research, and funded interdisciplinary projects help universities increase their research portfolios," Frodeman said.    

He said interdisciplinary approaches to research and education are becoming quite prominent nationally and internationally. Some interdisciplinary research areas, such as neuroscience, biochemistry and biomedical engineering, have become their academic fields.

Frodeman said some faculty members face some obstacles in pursuing interdisciplinary research, including barriers set by their universities.

"Promotion and tenure are awarded within academic disciplines, so if you get a research paper published in a journal other than one in your own discipline, it often doesn't count toward your tenure," he said. "Also, there's the problem of training and language. Every discipline has its own language and sees an issue through its own disciplinary lens. Faculty members must find ways to overcome differences in language and orientation."

Dr. J. Britt Holbrook, associate director for CSID, said the main advantage of interdisciplinary research is that faculty members are more prepared to study and solve society's problems with expertise from other academic areas.

"The world's problems can't be solved with one discipline," said Holbrook, a research assistant professor in UNT's Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies. "There are also societal problems that don't necessarily fit well within a certain discipline, and agencies are increasingly being pressured to fund relevant research. Interdisciplinary approaches make the research more relevant."

In addition, he said, "a mix of interdisciplinary perspectives provides a more interesting venue for teaching."

"It's more fun to connect with other faculty members than to teach on your own," Holbrook said.

 As UNT's "think tank" for interdisciplinary research, CSID will host speakers on interdisciplinarity. CSID will also publish the "Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity" this spring, with Frodeman serving as editor-in-chief. The handbook will:

  • provide a historical survey of attempts at interdisciplinarity
  • review successes and failures within both research and education in the sciences and the humanities
  • identify a set of best practices that will serve as the launching point for future explorations of interdisciplinarity

In addition, CSID will:

  • develop and promote the best practices for multi- and interdisciplinary activities at UNT
  • host a monthly seminar on interdisciplinarity and workshops on interdisciplinary teaching and research
  • begin an annual competition that will provide $50,000 to fund an interdisciplinary case study for a selected researcher. The researcher will also receive $5,000 to give a weeklong series of lectures at UNT.

For more information about CSID, contact Holbrook at 940-565-4048.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108