Curmudgeon alert! Oh, yeah!
The Financial Times' Gillian Tett had a great interview with author-academic Jared Diamond in the 11 October 2013 issue. It's an excellent article that describes what makes Diamond tick and is well worth reading.
The key issue, it seems, is that Diamond has had the audacity to break the boundary taboo. “Silo-busting is exceptional in academia – one is expected to specialise. There is a lot of turf warfare,” he notes, explaining that when he first started studying ornithology he kept this secret from his colleagues in the medical department. “Luckily my [academic] papers about birds were published in journals which no gall bladder physiologists ever read. But when my review committee eventually found out about what I was doing, they voted against my promotion. In academia, working in multiple fields is not a benefit but a penalty.” So much so that he now advises young academics to “make sure you get tenure before you start publishing in a second field”. “In academia people talk about interdisciplinary thinking and run courses and programmes – but Lord help you if you try to make an interdisciplinary career, unless you are already so high that there is nothing they can do to you.”
The last part about being 'so high that there is nothing they can do to you' is instructive. What that means is that if you are a tenured full professor (or at least a tenured professor) then you can start doing interdisciplinary work without (too much) fear of being fired (assuming you are still produtive, of course). Your dean or department head/chair can still make life miserable for you, however, by burdening you with excessive teaching loads, committee work, assorted menial tasks, giving you a broom closet for an office, etc.
It's no coincidence that I've heard the same mantra from many colleagues when they finally become tenured full professors: 'Now I can do stuff that really matters!' Often times, that means exploring other areas.
What all the above means is that you have a lot of OWGs ('old white guys or gals') like me doing ID work in academia. Nothing wrong with that (experience does count), but it would be nice to have more young, vibrant, diverse folks tackling the great ID issues.
When I was running an ID program in water resources at the University of New Mexico I once had a department chair tell me, 'Keep your hands off my young professors, because they need to publish in their disciplinary journals to get tenure.' Funny thing was, this fellow was an active participant in that same program. He had the power to change the P & T (promotion and tenure) metrics, but didn't.
On the other hand, while at UNM I dealt with enlightened chairs like Tim Ward of Civil Engineering, who encouraged his young (and old) water faculty to stretch themselves. But ones like Tim were the exception rather than the rule.
Universities seem inclined to promote their interdisciplinary (ID) programs and degrees but seem disinclined to support ($$$) such programs adequately. When budgets get tight, deans and similar administrators often look to cut ID programs to protect their disciplinary programs.
The real dilemma is where you put ID programs in an institution that is organized around disciplines. I once had a dean start a discussion about ID programs with: 'The problem with ID programs is that...' That is how he envisioned them - as 'problems'.
The answer to the dilemma is simple: the message has to come from the very top that these programs are a valued, permanent part of the university and that they will not be sacrificed on the altar of disciplinarity. Deans in particular need to understand this. The problem is that deans are often very powerful and higher administrators (provosts, presidents, chancellors, et al.) are often fearful of them.
And lest you think that just because a program is ID in nature that it deserves to exist, think again. Like their disciplinary cousins, ID programs must be monitored and evaluated. Crappy ones need to be canned; god ones nurtured. And remember that you need good disciplinary programs to have good ID programs.
Are things changing? Yes, to some degree things are better. But I have been involved in ID programs for close to 40 years and I suspect that we will still be having these discussions long after I've departed the scene.
But I, for one, would not trade in those 40 years for anything. It's been worth it. Has it ever!
I should note that for the early part of my career I thought doing groundwater and surface water hydrology constituted ID water work. By the time the early 1990s struck, I realized that 'real' ID water work also included planning, law, sociology, economics, biology, ecology, anthropology, psychology, public health, etc.
"Scientists tend to resist interdisciplinary inquiries into their own territory. In many instances, such parochialism is founded on the fear that intrusion from other disciplines would compete unfairly for limited financial resources and thus diminish their own opportunity for research." - Hannes Alfven
“The biggest problem in the environment is people's quest to find the biggest problem in the environment." -- Jared Diamond