By Dr Sean Gallagher
At Tsinghua University's centenary in Beijing in April this year, Yale president Richard Levin staked his university's reputation before a distinguished audience, including Chinese President Hu Jintao, when he said: "The fate of the planet depends on our ability . . . to solve society's most pressing problems." He spoke of poverty, disease, nuclear weapons, water and global warming. In doing so, he placed universities right at the core of understanding these challenges.
American university presidents are investing big dollars in the expensive interdisciplinary research infrastructure required to help solve these complex problems. Universities such as Yale, Duke, California, Columbia, Indiana, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Washington, Stanford and even Harvard now view interdisciplinary research as core business.
At Indiana University all new research space will have an interdisciplinary focus. There is a multitude of American joint ventures with universities in Asia, particularly in China. Interdisciplinary research is a high-risk, high-reward endeavour, and these leading universities are putting their reputations on the line.
But, absurdly, there is a rapidly widening gulf between what universities are doing in research and what they are ranked as doing. In less than a decade, the rise in the influence of global rankings of universities has been meteoric, so much so that UNESCO held a conference in Paris last month to discuss the effect rankings are having on students in deciding their choice of university. The conference also heard how rankings influence companies in choosing research partners, guide governments in setting their higher education policy and drive universities to employ tactics to optimise their global ranking and so improve their reputations.
The problem with global university rankings is that they don't really reflect the global century in which we live. The two leading international university league tables - The Times Higher Education World University Rankings and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Academic Rankings of World Universities - measure specialist disciplinary research performance only.
Disciplinary specialisation is a model of knowledge production that is being overwhelmed by the complex global issues that Levin lists, along with others such as society's hunger for new technologies. Universities worldwide are investing in research enterprises that link rather than separate disciplines, including many Australian universities. Yet by measuring only the discrete disciplinary outputs of interdisciplinary research, the global league tables are treating universities' IDR activity as a zero-sum game. This is out of step with this century's megatrends.
By 2100, governments across the world will have invested trillions of dollars in tackling society's issues and ensuring continued improvement in quality of life. Most industries will be significantly affected by the challenges and opportunities that will arise, along with many millions of jobs. Students will seek out a higher education from those universities that can equip them for the complexities of this century.
A significant shift towards interdisciplinarity is under way, meaning a bright future for those universities that embrace it. And those that do will demand their reputations be rewarded for it. So, with such strategic importance placed on interdisciplinary research by the world's best universities, along with society's heavy expectations, the pressure will increase on global university rankings to measure a university's IDR performance alongside its disciplinary output.
The challenge is to find the best proxy to measure interdisciplinary research. The National Science Foundation in the US has a head start, having been supporting it since the 1980s. The agency has many IDR programs, including creating networks of interdisciplinary research centres focused on new technologies. Today, of its approximately $US6 billion annual budget, about 35 per cent of funding opportunities at the NSF are for IDR.
The NSF has developed a rudimentary indicator of IDR by reporting doctorates that record more than one research field. From 2004 to 2008, the NSF reports that almost 30 per cent of all doctorates reported two or more research fields. Looking at the breakdown for institutions, MIT leads the US pack with 43.7 per cent of PhDs as interdisciplinary. The leading public institution is Indiana University, at 38.1 per cent.
It is no coincidence that the institutions leading the NSF interdisciplinarity indicator are the same ones investing millions in initiatives, the same ones whose reputations are most at stake.
With UNESCO predicting there will be seven million students trotting the globe by 2020 in search of the best university for them, universities will be even more pressed to optimise their rankings. And with the best universities investing so heavily in IDR, global rankings will be pressed to recognise institutions that are solving society's most pressing problems.
Sean Gallagher is a research associate in American higher education and chief operating officer at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.