Sunday, May 30, 2010

Interdisciplinary Science

I've been thinking about interdisciplinarity lately. What it is, what sorts of problems of inquiry it's good for, what the obstacles to interdisciplinary research are, and how interdisciplinarity differs from other options such as multi-disciplinarity. This seems like a job for: social epistemologists!

The NSF has released a study on US doctoral dissertations that can be identified as conducting interdisciplinary (science?) research. (NSF results here.) On the survey of earned doctorates, doctoral candidates were asked to identify their primary and secondary field of research. In 2008, 27% of respondents indicated that their research was interdisciplinary.

From Science magazine's report on the study:
It's an article of faith among science policymakers that interdisciplinary research is essential to address society's most pressing technological challenges, from energy independence to improved health care. But don't ask them to measure it. The National Academies' upcoming assessment of doctoral research programs, for example, asked departments what percentage of their faculty members were associated with other programs. But the data "aren't very satisfactory," says Charlotte Kuh, study director. Part of the problem is the fuzzy definition of an interdisciplinary program, she adds.
The standard for what counts as interdisciplinary is not set very high, since the fields are cut fairly finely and research that straddles closely related fields is counted as interdisciplinary. Thus, a research project in ecology and plant pathology counts as interdisciplinary. So does endocrinology and environmental toxicology. Thus, 81% of respondents in the biological sciences who considered their research to be interdisciplinary listed a secondary discipline in the same broad field as their primary discipline.

In other words, how much does the survey depend on students' perception of what counts as interdisciplinary? And what sort of meaning does it give to interdisciplinarity to count closely related fields as meeting a standard of interdisciplinarity. It seems to me that if there are obstacles to interdisciplinary research (and I think there are), these are less likely to make a difference when the fields in question are agricultural science and plant pathology than when they are atmospheric science and sociology. Yet, when we hear proclamations of the tough problems that interdisciplinarity will solve, they are more often like the latter than the former.

Again, from the Science News report:
NSF officials say the survey doesn't address the larger question of how difficult or easy it is for students to pursue interdisciplinary degrees, nor the extent to which senior faculty engage in interdisciplinary research themselves. An ongoing NSF survey of academic research piloted a question about how much is being spent on such activities, and where on campus the research takes place. But that proved to be a tough question for research administrators to answer, says one program manager, and the results may not be usable.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Mountain Gorillas in the Congo

Posted with a CSMonitor article titled "Want to save Congo's endangered mountain gorillas? There an app for that" and an earlier article "Standing up for Congo's rare mountain gorillas."

In Virunga National Park,
More than 120 rangers have been killed in recent years for trying to stop the trade in exotic animals, gold, and charcoal from the park.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Philosophy Careers, Autonomy, and Self-direction

My university now offers a bachelor's degree in philosophy, and the degree program has been more successful in its first couple of years than anyone initially expected. Students are transferring in from other programs within the university, students are double-majoring (even with their other degree being in engineering!), and we've recruited students who are willing to enter from Day 1 as philosophy majors. (This is the only university I know of which makes it all but impossible to enter as an undecided major.)

But I have to admit that I have concerns when it comes to recruiting students to the philosophy major in the context of a career-oriented university. I do believe that philosophy prepares people to excel in law, law enforcement, criminal investigation, business, journalism, the clergy, politics, civil service and international development, education, market and policy research, and so many other fields. Yet, in a university where majors are seen as preparatory for disciplinary careers, the philosophy majors I know all expect to become professional philosophers.

I make no judgments about who would be a "good" future professional--there's far, far too much diversity in our profession to play that game. The problem, instead, is my suspicion that the chances of successfully navigating the route to professional philosopher are rather less probable than that of successfully becoming a lawyer, businessperson, journalist, editor, or whatever, while being more vested with mythology and no more dependent on merit. I worry about their future happiness.

So as I say farewell to students on their way to graduate school, I'll be sure to plant the idea in their heads that there are many good and fulfilling careers. And I hope that all our philosophical discussions of virtuosity, of autonomy, and of authenticity will head them down interesting and unexpected paths.

Should the path of professional philosophers seem too flat and narrow, I have two excellent examples of people who trekked off it to find their own:

Martin Noval, who was a visiting professor in my department in the 1980's (before my time here) leads treks in the Himalayas and trips through India.

Jack Turner, formerly a professor at Univ. of Illinois, Chicago is now the president of Exum Mountain Guides.