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Making Interdisciplinarity Easier

Almost all major research funding is moving away from single discipline support to support of interdisciplinarity. This arises, no doubt, partly from the observation that the major unsolved problems facing the world appear to be clusters of issues in multiple knowledge domains. For example, handling epidemics like Ebola requires not just understanding the biological and biochemical mechanism of disease transmission, but also the cultural norms that guide personal behaviors, the nature of the infrastructure for public health, the legitimacy of government organizations, and the belief systems of the population. Addressing income inequality is not just a matter of understanding wage and salary distributions, but also links between education and occupation, impacts of technology on needed skill mixes, and effects of globalization on enterprise location.

What are the key components of success that universities have discovered in sustaining interdisciplinarity? First, interdisciplinary teams are fueled by people who can navigate multiple domains of knowledge. Hence, throughout the campus Georgetown is attempting to build an environment in which such education and research can take place. For the Graduate School, this means the mounting of new graduate programs educating students in new packages of knowledge that combine features of existing disciplines. For research activities, it means investing in clusters of faculty and students from different fields to work together on the same problem. The Georgetown Environment Initiative funds proposals for collaborators from multiple disciplines. The McCourt School Massive Data Institutes funds collaborators between computational sciences and the social sciences. The Designing the Future(s) experiments are creating new clusters of knowledge across fields and courses that promote interdisciplinary approaches. The Beeck Center brings together multidisciplinary teams to design and build sustainable processes for social good. The Law-Med-Main campuses are collaborating in funding new joint appointments across units.

Second, by definition, one can’t have interdisciplinarity without disciplines. Basic research and scholarship in the existing disciplines must continue to be supported.

Third, those faculty who seek to work in interdisciplinary teams need support. The work is not for all faculty, but those who choose to do it must be protected from the fact that universities are structured in ways counter to interdisciplinary work. Departments, fields, and schools are powerful organizations. They define reward systems for scholarship, even dictating what questions are most important to ask. They retain autonomy to judge the quality of work. They choose what form of output is desirable (e.g., books, articles, data resources, objects). In some sense, all interdisciplinary work threatens those discipline-based norms and value systems. Hence, universities have to put in place protections for the career advancement of those who do interdisciplinary work. We’ve redefined joint appointment criteria to assure that at promotion times, such candidates are treated fairly.

Fourth, similar protections need to be put in place for interdisciplinary educational degree programs, which are of increasing interest to students. Just like traditional departments delivering a curriculum, those programs need assurance that faculty interested in teaching in the programs can commit to teaching. We are constructing more formal multi-year agreements between their home units and the interdisciplinary programs. The agreements must be sensitive to the needs of the home unit (that will lose some of the activities of the faculty member) and the needs of the interdisciplinary group of interest to the faculty member. These agreements should give unit heads and the faculty more predictability.

The history of the academy teaches us over and over that interdisciplinary groupings mature into new fields. This is true of computer science, statistics, public policy, communication studies, and many others. Before they experience such maturation, however, they need special nurturance. The world’s problems are calling for our help; those who seek to solve them by combining knowledge from multiple domains need to be allowed to do so.

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Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202)

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