This morning, Insider Higher Ed reported on a meeting at MIT at which a panel discussed how recent breakthroughs in the life sciences point to a new way to think about academic organization. The called this model ‘convergence’, suggesting the movement from several directions (or disciplines) toward a common limit point (or achievement). Of course, this is just another way to package interdisciplinary interaction at a team-level.
It’s natural to walk away from this discussion all excited about training scientists in this new approach from the start of their undergraduate career. Been there. Thought that. And I always return to the fact that excellence in interdisciplinary achievement will always be built on deep discipline-specific knowledge.
Some questions from the packed audience of academics, researchers, Capitol Hill and White House staffers, and MIT alumni centered on whether universities should start training “convergent scientists” who are versed in hybrid fields. But Keith Yamamoto, professor and executive vice dean of the University of California at San Francisco’s School of Medicine, cautioned against it. Highly specialized knowledge will only grow in importance, he said. What is needed more, he argued, was a wider acceptance – as reflected in how scientists are trained and what gets published – of the importance of teamwork. Effective teamwork among specialists of disparate disciplines who look to new areas of knowledge would spur progress. “We need to excite people about what’s going on in the boundaries,” said Yamamoto.
So it’s not ‘interdisciplinary’ scientists that we need to train, we need to inculcate in our students curiosity about what’s going on at the boundary of disciplines, where only interdisciplinary teams can make progress.