Universities in the United States have enjoyed global dominance for more than half a century thanks to their focus on research. In that time, they have produced 50 per cent of the world’s Nobel laureates but times are changing.

The great recession of 2008–09 has put large holes in the finances of both public and private universities and Chinese universities are rapidly catching up. And 21st-century issues, from global health to climate change are challenging the old ways of university research.

In November last year, I spent a month visiting nine US universities and institutes from Harvard to Stanford, interviewing 11 former and current university presidents on the future of higher education in the US. They all said that the days of single-disciplinary research—the 20th-century paradigm of specialisation—were over.

At the heart of the change is the onset of enormously complex global issues, from food and water to energy and security. The multidisciplinary nature of these problems is driving universities to move towards structures where horizontal interdisciplinary platforms cut across traditional vertical lines.

Computer science and biology no longer seem strange bedfellows but rather essential partners. The same is true for economics and engineering or English and international relations. 

Amid the pall cast by the global recession, America’s elite research institutions are excited about taking on the big challenges of the new millennium. One president told me unequivocally, “Any research university that doesn’t have strong inter-disciplinary programs focused on most of the problems of society is going to be at a huge disadvantage in the  21st century.”

On the west coast, Bio-X at Stanford University has introduced one of the first large-scale initiatives in interdisciplinary research, bringing together under one roof a broad range of scientific and engineering disciplines in biosciences research. Indiana University’s new Innovation Centre and the College of the Environment at the University of Washington have been two other exciting inter-disciplinary platforms. Indeed one president said that all new research space at his university would be interdisciplinary-focused.

Interdisciplinary discussions are even taking place at Harvard, America’s top ivy-league university and arguably the most discipline-focused institution in world research. In 2006, a university-wide committee reported to Harvard president Derek Bok on how barriers to collaboration in science and engineering could be lowered. 

Bok, the only two-time president of Harvard, said, “The first thing that struck me as really changing at Harvard in the 15 years I wasn’t here was the great increase in interdisciplinary interest among the faculty.”

In one of its buildings at Atkinson Hall at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), a disciplinary soup of researchers from across the natural sciences, medicine, engineering and the social sciences have come together to tackle large-scale societal issues.

Virtual internet platforms likewise connect multidisciplinary research teams at Calit2, where the new paradigm for research is already reaping breakthroughs. Machine-perception researchers develop robots to interact with young children to reveal insights on how to improve adult systems for human–robot interaction.

New media artists and computer scientists are collaborating on opportunities for gaming and on-demand publishing.

These high-tech environments are natural playgrounds for tech-savvy students, places where they can take risks in exploring new interdisciplinary terrain.

A former UC president said, "It is the students who feel most comfortable in dynamic multidimensional settings where traditional faculty specialists—even postdocs—find it difficult."

There is strong financial motivation for universities to chase the increasingly focused research dollar with interdisciplinary projects. With less funding available from traditional sources, some university presidents say they are aggressively aligning their universities to support interdisciplinary research in order to exploit federal, corporate and foundation funding.

For example, as part of the United States federal investment in clean energy, President Obama has committed billions of dollars to develop "new approaches to energy research and investment in the next generation of scientists and engineers."

Having no leading research programs in renewable energy is not impeding the University of Oregon System in positioning itself for federal investment. The university is so determined to be a player in the new clean energy economy, it aims to completely remove one of its campuses from the electricity grid—an interdisciplinary platform truly writ large.