Interdisciplinary Research

UCLA has a long tradition of commitment to, and support of, interdisciplinary work, so what’s new in that respect?

One answer is that the range of interdisciplinary activity at UCLA has been codified and made explicit in an Appendix to The UCLA CALL (Appendix 37).  The appendix statement makes it clear that interdisciplinary features are fully embedded in the academic review process—e.g., in the varied membership of the Council on Academic Personnel, in the constitution of ad hoc review committees, and in a wide range of formally established units, on both the north and south campus, that are reflective of the interdisciplinary interests of the faculty in both teaching and research. Illustrative of the scope of such interdisciplinary campus agencies are: the Brain Research Institute, the International Institute, the UCLA Center on Aging, the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Center for Society and Genetics, the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.  The list of such agencies on campus is quite extensive, among the most recent of such interdisciplinary units being the California Nanosystems Institute, which brings together researchers with broad interests in engineering, physics, medicine, and the biological sciences.

Another answer to the question, “What’s new?,” lies in the fact that the new appendix makes it clear that departments are enjoined to pay close attention to the interdisciplinary features of work by candidates for advancement and promotion. Whether these activities are formally recognized (e.g., through joint appointments, which are themselves encouraged) or are in the nature of informal collaborations, these interdisciplinary activities are not to be treated as diversions from departmental duties but as integral features of the candidates’ contributions. The essential question always under review is the quality of the work, not its adherence to a restricted departmental vision. In this regard, the appendix statement specifically charges Chairs and reviewers to be aware that it may well be necessary and appropriate to call on the expertise of an extra-departmental reviewer or committee member to adequately evaluate a given candidate’s dossier. Chairs are reminded, as they are in various parts of The UCLA CALL itself, that departments must affirmatively seek out the evaluation of the candidate’s performance in his or her formal extra-departmental affiliations.

Finally, a new development supporting interdisciplinary work is modification of the certification page on the data summary form.  The form now specifies that each faculty member has the right to describe interdisciplinary work, in detail, in the self-statement; to identify persons, both extramural and intramural, qualified to evaluate that work; and to designate (on the form) UC interdisciplinary entities (such as organized research units and interdepartmental programs) with which the faculty member has been affiliated and whose input the Chair should solicit as part of the personnel action.

Though evaluating interdisciplinary work presents its own special challenges – whether on the campus or in national research circles – there are clearly multiple mechanisms on the campus to accommodate the increasing thrust toward interdisciplinary work in rapidly changing disciplines.