At a variety of academic institutions, the number of departments has increased steadily over the last century, from about 20 in 1900 to between 50 and 110 in 2000.1 National professional societies have also increased in number from 82 in 1900 to 367 in 1985.2 Although those changes may appear to indicate increasing specialization, the increase in new departments and societies primarily reflects a blending of previously distinct fields to produce new areas such as biophysics and biochemistry and, more recently, neuroscience and photonics.

4. Successful interdisciplinary researchers have found ways to integrate and synthesize disciplinary depth with breadth of interests, visions, and skills.

Studies of expertise have shown that perception and understanding of a given task or problem depends on the knowledge a person brings to a situation.3 A challenge in interdisciplinary work is to develop expertise in more than one area. Among the respondents to the committee’s survey, 94% of whom were at least partially involved in IDR, clear strategies to obtaining discipline-spanning expertise emerged. Over half indicated that after developing expertise in one field, they had sought training in additional fields through postdoctoral fellowships, additional advanced degrees, or day-to-day interactions with researchers in different fields to participate in interdisciplinary projects. These strategies were reflected in the top recommendations respondents made for institutions, principal investigators, postdocs and students: foster a collaborative environment (26 percent), build a network with other researchers (20 percent), find a postdoctoral appointment in a different field (13 percent), seek additional mentors (12 percent), cross boundaries between fields (25 percent) and at the same time develop a solid background in one discipline (12 percent).

5. Students, especially undergraduates, are strongly attracted to interdisciplinary courses, especially those of societal relevance.

For example, at Harvard University, the number of undergraduate joint concentrations in chemistry and physics has risen from 14 to 45 over the last 15 years. There has been large-scale growth at Columbia College since 1993 in majors and concentrations in interdisciplinary departments and interdepartmental programs. At Stanford University, a multiyear decline in the number of students majoring in earth science was reversed when the

1  

See Figure 1-1.

2  

See Figure 7-1.

3  

National Research Council. How People Learn. Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. 2000.



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