The goal of the Common Fund’s Interdisciplinary Research program is to change academic research culture such that interdisciplinary approaches and team science spanning various biomedical and behavioral specialties are encouraged and rewarded.
The Interdisciplinary Research (IR) Consortium initiative began at the end of FY 2007 with the funding of nine interdisciplinary research consortia, each with a different intractable biomedical problem that might be solved through an interdisciplinary research approach. The IR Consortia were intended to provide a unique approach to research that allowed self-assembly and the integration of multiple research components – including training, core services, research projects, and pilot studies – to address a complex biomedical research topic. Each consortium had multiple grant awards associated with it. NIH program directors from different ICs managed the individual awards as a member of a team for each Consortium and were expected to keep up with the progress of the Consortium as a whole, which is markedly different from how most NIH awards are managed.
The primary goals for the Interdisciplinary Research Consortium initiative follow:
- Encourage the integration of different scientific disciplines to develop new intellectual and technological approaches to complex health problems;
- Support interdisciplinary approaches to solving significant and complex biomedical problems, particularly those that have been resistant to traditional approaches;
- Catalyze the creation of new disciplines.
The following key evaluation questions were chosen:
- What management issues arose, both at the project (grantee) and program (NIH) level and how were these resolved?
- How did management of interdisciplinary research differ from management of other biomedical research?
- What structural features were put in place at the project level to support interdisciplinarity of research and training?
- What leadership qualities supported interdisciplinarity at the project level?
- How did the experiences of investigators differ from their previous experiences?
- How did the experiences of post-doctoral trainees differ from their previous experiences?
- How did trainees predict that their interdisciplinary training would affect their careers?
The evaluation began in Year 2 (2009) of the project, and almost all data collection was completed by the end of Year 3 (2010). Multiple methods, qualitative and quantitative, were employed. Document reviews focused primarily on grant applications and annual progress reports from the grantees, as well as grantee documents such as manuscripts or other reports and published articles. Other reports from Program Officers at NIH were reviewed. Project Principal Investigators, some staff, and trainees participated in guided interviews. Some trainees participated in group interviews. Trainees also completed rating scales. Scientific meetings were observed. Meetings of NIH program officials were observed. Electronic surveys were sent to investigators.
The following interdisciplinary activities, behaviors, or outcomes were documented for the Investigators:
- Frequent meetings with investigators from multiple disciplines to discuss research methods dedicated to a specific, shared medical condition
- Expansion of own research vocabulary and portfolio, consistent with Consortium disciplines
- Increase in scholarly activity and scientific productivity in new disciplines
- Co-mentoring of trainees, consistent with Consortium disciplines
- Sharing of resources
The following interdisciplinary activities, behaviors, or outcomes were documented for the Trainees:
- Access to investigators from multiple disciplines
- Training on equipment and methods from multiple labs
- Expansion of knowledge in other fields
The apparent facilitators of interdisciplinarity at the project level follow:
- Dedication to a single medical or public health problem, narrowly defined
- Funding for an administrative core
- Investigator interactions – face to face
- Research progress review & planning (specific experiments and methods)
- Senior investigator meetings or seminar series
- Flexibility in funding to allow expansion of research plan, rapid response to research findings, and expansion of investigator team
- Scientific Advisory Boards and Annual Meetings, especially when combined with NIH site visits
- Shared equipment (non-IT)
The apparent inhibitors of interdisciplinarity at the project level follow:
- Dedication to a single medical or public health problem, broadly defined
- Geographic dispersion
- Weak link between clinical activities and clinical research
- Management of clinical trials
- Temporally sequenced set of research activities such that many specific investigations could not be initiated until other activities were completed
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