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Institutions of Higher Education Could Be Better

Pressing world problems demand that our universities be better.

It is time to rethink how institutions of higher education view their mission so that they can better fulfill their obligation as the major basic research engine in society. It is time that institutions of higher education expect more of their faculty than their being solitary investigators seeking to garner individual credit for the incremental contributions. It is time for universities to recognize that their faculty have roles as members of large, interdisciplinary, malleable, and adaptable teams of scientists and scholars addressing Big Questions and Problems. It is time for institutions of higher education to find ways to build multi-institutions collaborations and consortiums rather than to treat one another as competitors in a zero-sum game. To accomplish these changes, it is time for institutions of higher education to rethink their organization for and support and evaluation of research contributions.

Most people think of universities as the place where kids go for advanced education. In fact, universities are our nation's most important research engine - a point Jonathan Cole makes in his recent book, The great American university." The research and innovations that have come from institutions of higher education are major reasons for the competitiveness of the United States in the world economy and for the status and influence of the U.S. in international affairs. This does not mean that teaching is unimportant. The best researchers are often also the best teachers. Their deep expertise and passion can be infectious and effective in the classroom and can be transformative in one-on-one mentoring in the laboratory. And teaching can have a synergistic effect on research, as the youthful exuberance, novel perspectives, and obvious questions that students bring to the enterprise can lead to new and important insights.

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As the problems scientists and scholars address have increased in complexity, the once solitary geniuses across our university campuses have changed how they work. They are now more likely to work in larger and larger investigative teams that cut across disciplinary, institutional, and national boundaries. This trend, documented by various bibliometric and scientometric analyses, has transformed how research is done in universities - and how it will be done in the future. Fifty years ago, solitary investigators were doing the most impactful research. For the past decade, it is large teams of scientists and scholars who are doing the most impactful research.

Institutions of higher education have not kept pace with these changes. Universities still evaluate their junior faculty in terms of their demonstrated ability to make "independent" contributions. Such institutional practices limits the opportunities for these young scholars to become involved in large scientific teams and reduces the likelihood that these teams will continue to be fueled by the brightest young minds and newest methodologies. Offices or Research in universities have to focus more on legal issues, regulatory requirements, and compliance by researchers than on the promotion of research or scholarship.

Universities tend to provide funds to support "large scale research investigations" when the expected value based on the indirect cost return from grants makes it rational to do so - and even then the support is available only to a small number of faculty and tends to be in the form of physical infrastructure - a building, a telescope, or a magnet - whose impact on scholarship at a university is limited in terms of scope and duration. These investments do little to change the overall climate for research in our institutions of higher education.

Foundations, government funding agencies, and philanthropists who wish to promote progress on Big Questions or Big Problems find institutions of higher education prefer to take ownership of the project for the benefit of their faculty, reputation, and bottom line. Given the increased multi-institutional nature of scientific teams today, this inclination - as understandable as it may be - can have a high cost in terms of obstructing progress on these Questions and Problems.

We developed and implemented the Arete Initiative at the University of Chicago three years ago as an experiment in what it means to be a research university and what it means to be a faculty member at a research university. Arete takes the existing departmental structure at universities and conceptualizes it as one dimension within a multidimensional matrix. It eliminates barriers of disciplinary and geographical proximity by capitalizing on personal interactions and new information technologies. Institutional, geographical, and departmental borders play virtually no role in the selection of the faculty to participate in these large, interdisciplinary teams. It uses the gravitational pull of massive problems to attract the best minds around the world to collaboratively attack these problems on multiple, coordinated fronts. But, ultimately, Arete is not responsible for the identification of the problems, the construction of the teams, or the success of the efforts, the faculty are. Arete realizes that the successful construction and orchestration of such teams requires visionary leadership, logistical support, unremitting insistence for deep interdisciplinary exchanges, and adaptability as new evidence and insights emerge. The function of Arete is to serve as an interdisciplinary incubator, an enzyme that catalyzes the potential of experts working together in large, multi-institutional, interdisciplinary teams to address big Questions and Problems.

At present, most institutions of higher education have no mechanism for developing or staffing such an infrastructure, nor do many have any notion of this need. They continue to conceptualize scholarship in terms of the work of solitary geniuses despite clear evidence that this conception no longer holds (e.g., see Wuchty et al., Science, 2007, vol 316, 1036-1039). As a result, institutions of higher education are losing their competitive advantage, and as a consequence so is the U.S.

Teams, of course, can be less effective than the sum of individual efforts. It therefore is essential to continue to embrace the work of solitary scholars when that is best, and to know the problems, contexts, and individuals who favor collaborative efforts. When teams are the most potent engine, we need to develop better guides to identify the leadership style and contingencies that optimize group effectiveness.

Financial incentives that reward long-term rather than immediate successes are needed for teams which seek to solve Big Problems. Play and the satisfaction of working meaningfully to improve the future our children will inherit are also important. Thus, the leadership needs to establish that the work of the team is simultaneously serious and not serious at all. Failures for the right reason should be encouraged. Failures due to insufficient foresight or avoidable errors should be eschewed, of course, but failures from which the group learns are important for advancement. The incentive structure therefore needs to be designed carefully to maintain the intrinsic interests of any group who is tackling a problem that will require considerable time and effort. Progress in science typically is erratically incremental, with large leaps made likely by rigorous preparation and an open, playful mind. Innovative solutions, which may initially seem implausible, are as important to consider as are probable answers. The culture of these interdisciplinary teams should be to engage others with discrepant views in serious dialogue. Among the lessons we have learned thus far in Arete are:

  • that some Big Questions may have no ultimate answer, but that does not mean that efforts to find answers should be abandoned or that all answers are created equal. Accordingly, there may be more to be gained from engaging in a collaborative process of thinking about these questions than from demanding simple and immediate answers. A group may seek to develop "better" answers to an unsolvable question. The value in stating these positions is to improve circumstances and to have clear positions from which to move thinking and research forward.
  • that one need not agree with a position to perform a deep and thorough analysis of the arguments for and against the position. Conversely, one may agree with a position but nevertheless adopt the position of the devil's advocate to ensure all possible expertise and innovations have been brought to bear on the question. Objectivity in thought and analysis are keys to reaching a deep understanding of a topic. By taking a position, developing arguments for and against the position, then taking the opposite position and doing likewise, we develop the capacity to be more dispassionate and powerful thinkers - and gain deeper insight into a topic.
  • that one need not reach agreement with someone to learn a great deal from discussions with them or to make significant advances in addressing a complex question. The salve of affirmation can lead us to seek like-minded others and to denigrate and avoid those who disagree with us. Although this may provide temporary comfort, it does little to help address deep divisions or answer the Big Questions with which we must deal in an increasingly complex and diverse world. For instance, there are inherent tensions between the sciences and the humanities, and these tensions have led to a polarization of views, and an "it's my way or the highway" approach toward those holding divergent points of view. Appropriate leadership can reveal an alternative possibility. The tensions between different disciplines reflect deep and enduring differences in the way in which scholars in the humanities, the social sciences, and the sciences think about theory, methods, and evidence. These differences can test one's mettle but if acknowledged, respected, embraced, and pursued, they result in a richer, more innovative and synergistic collaborative effort. In the case of large interdisciplinary teams, this is neither easy nor quick, but it can be achieved through a mutual respect and exchange of ideas and a shared conviction regarding the importance of the team's combination of approaches from the humanities and the sciences. If these tensions are embraced and used to their full catapultic effect, one can make progress on serious problems, transforming not only how we think about the problem, but also how we think about those who hold different or opposing views.
  • • that the insights or advances we can achieve need not be our or our opponent's position, or a less-than optimal compromise between the two, but rather they can be truly innovative, building on and transcending both initial positions. The specific forms of such creative and transcendent solutions are difficult to articulate in advance but there is a thought process - characterized by clarity, openness, constructive criticism, and synthesis - that increases the likelihood one will reach such solutions.

Although Arete is still in its infancy, we have identified seven steps that are important when developing a new, interdisciplinary scientific team. Briefly, they are: (1) the articulation of a Big Question; (2) a clear but flexible vision about how the question might be attacked on multiple, coordinated fronts; (3) the identification of the best minds in the world who are attracted by the gravitational pull of the Big Question and the opportunity to collaboratively attack the problem; (4) the development of strong group cohesion built on mutual purpose, understanding, respect, and friendship; (5) the attention to and creation of synergies such that each individual perceives they are getting more out of their participation than they are contributing; (6) a leader who understands entropy and, consequently, the need to (quietly) put energy into the maintenance of the activities and culture of the group; and (7) a principal investigator ("champion") and a project manager ("owner"), the former provides the vision, direction, guidance, and overall leadership for the group and serves as the public face, chief fund raiser, and media contact, whereas the latter is responsible for the logistical and administrative details and sees to it that decisions are made and followed. For instance, the experience and reputation of the principal investigator help pull the team together, chart the path, and keep the team working toward the goal, whereas the project manager paves the path to the finish and initiates and coordinate consultations (e.g., with the principle investigator) when the charted course requires revision.

In sum, we are at a momentous period in human history. We need to accelerate the rate of basic research advancement if humankind is to deal successfully with looming challenges and unforeseen problems. To accomplish this, we need to help scientists and universities develop new institutional frameworks and to promote cultural changes to permit work beyond the current disciplinary silos and intellectual straight-jackets imposed by the traditional divisions and contingencies in research universities. Given institutions of higher education are the largest basic research enterprise in the world, loaded with extensive intellectual talent, and propelled by a culture that encourages the free exchange of information, ideas, and advances, humankind if not all terrestrial life will be the beneficiary of institutions of higher education changing how they view their mission, how they organize their support for research, how they view their relationship to other institutions, and how they conceptualize the jobs of their faculty. Now is the time to take a first step in that direction by creating such teams, providing the visionary thinking and infrastructure they need to excel, and sharing its insights and procedures with others.

 

John Cacioppo, Ph.D., is the Tiffany and Margaret Blake distinguished service professor at the University of Chicago.

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