Universities ‘must break down barriers between disciplines’

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Universities must redouble their efforts to remove persistent barriers that prevent scientists from collaborating, institutional leaders have warned.

speaking to Times Higher Education‘s Asia Summit, held in partnership with Fujita Health University in Japan, academics said universities and scientists must resist the instinct to work in silos.

Megan Kenna, founding executive director of Schmidt Science Fellows – an Oxford-based funding organization that supports scholarship in science and technology fields – said the generalized approach to science was at odds with what was needed to solve the global issues.

“Science today is often restrictive, narrow and limited by disciplines,” Dr. Kenna said. “Global Challenges…does not recognize the neatly labeled disciplinary boxes in which we organize our science.”

She said the problem lay in the way science was funded, organized and encouraged. Interdisciplinary researchers – especially young ones – might feel stuck on an “academic island”, devoid of peer communities when so many of them were entrenched in narrow areas.

There was also a lack of incentives to pursue large-scale research, with scholars often pressured into affiliating with certain departments early in their careers.

As a result, the best minds weren’t driven to deal with the big world problems that science should solve.

Arshad Ahmad, vice-chancellor of Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), said universities’ drive to produce research often leaves them pursuing narrowly focused topics.

“The mantra is research intensity, but I think research intensity alone won’t get us where we need to go,” he said.

Dr Ahmad said his institution sought to replicate a teaching model of the London School of Economics, where an “academic core” of lectures brought together experts from different disciplines to give their opinions on the “most difficult key questions”. .

He highlighted the need for universities to cast a wide net to ensure they draw on talent from all walks of life – something LUMS was working on by offering full fee waivers to 10% of its applicants, including including students from rural Pakistan.

He also stressed the need to empower students as “true partners in learning” so that the opportunity to “look at things differently” is not lost – and that the benefits of innovation generated by the university are impact on society.

“I think [our] the greatest impact is growing [the] number of alumni [who create] social enterprises [that] give back to their own communities,” he told the summit.

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