Interdisciplinary research, education and training projects are “heating up” across the country (Jacobs and Frickel, 2009). There is dramatic increase of top-down funding opportunities from organizations such as NSF, National Institutes of Health, National Academy of Sciences, MacArthur Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the American Association of Universities - and the list goes on.
Bottom up interdisciplinary initiatives are increasing as well, evidenced by the increase in faculty seeking collaborations on their own (often in spite of evaluation and reward structures that tend to favor more single disciplinary achievement (Mansilla and Gardner 2010).
The current trend of increase in interdisciplinary projects underscores the perceived value of collaborating effectively across disciplines which is thought to increase the likelihood of finding effective solutions to complex problems, promote creativity and increase the pace at which knowledge can move forward. One would think with such an increase in quantity that the quality would correspondingly increase. Unfortunately, high quality collaboration across disciplines is not the norm.
In a 2005 NAS Report, the problem is seen as follows: “social science research has not yet fully elucidated the complex social and intellectual processes that make for successful IDR [interdisciplinary research]. A deeper understanding of these processes will further enhance the prospects for creation and management for successful IDR projects.” As Myra Strober puts it, “talking to colleagues across disciplines is not for the faint of heart... it is more difficult than people imagine” (Strober 2011). From our experience in conducting external assessment for other IGERT projects, we would agree that start-up, implementation and completion of an IGERT funding cycle is downright complex. We believe that applying complexity concepts in a form of “developmental” evaluation is most appropriate and facilitates the innovation the project intends.
The SustainaMetrix approach to external assessment of the Water Diplomacy IGERT is grounded in the desire to assist the project at a basic level of accountability to the funder (NSF), but more importantly, to help to understand and identify the dynamic nature of the project and help guide adaptation and innovation. We neither intend to test nor prove an educational theory of change, nor do we focus on evaluating academic outputs of students or faculty as part of this project. Instead, the SustainaMetrix team in partnership with the IGERT team would work together in the following ways:
- Ensure the project is following what it proposed to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and implementing these activities in a “learning by doing” process that is evidenced by adaptive adjustments along the way;
- Develop, refine and use a set of metrics and indicators to better understand the progress of implementation by focusing on both process and outcomes as well as the culture within which the project operates;
- Develop consensus on what “success” will look like in five years, define the enabling conditions necessary to achieve the goals of the project and track the degree to which they are in place
- Explore risks and rewards to involvement in the project by trainees, faculty and external partners
- Help to guide adaptation to emergent and dynamic realities that unfold over the course of the implementation of the project and recommend project adjustments (small tweaks and large changes) as necessary
- Maintain a focus on the long term trajectory of the project, e.g. what happens after the NSF funding ends, how the IGERT may influence changes in reward structures for interdisciplinarity, other effects the project may have for increasing collaboration across disciplines at University of Delaware, etc.