The Future of Interdisciplinary Research
USF Sarasota-Manatee Campus Interdisciplinary Research Grants Support Convergent Research
By Sandra Justice
In the field of research, novel questions drive inquiry and discovery. Yet, the more complex the question the less likely a single discipline, or person, will be able to discern its answer. The solution, rather, rests with team science. Enter Interdisciplinary Research (IR).
Interdisciplinary research unites diversity of experience with expertise to unlock solutions to complex, multi-faceted questions. The notion isn’t new, as team science has existed for decades at universities and foundations that support innovative research.
Among the places to embrace IR, few do so more ably than at the National Science Foundation (NSF), where interdisciplinary research is referred to as “convergent research.”
At the NSF, the integration of knowledge, methods and expertise across social and natural sciences is helping to create new frameworks to drive discovery and innovation. This is evident, in a particular way, through a program recently introduced at the NSF: the NSF Convergence Accelerator. Although still in its early stages, the Convergence Accelerator is producing remarkable results. During its first phase last year, the program hosted 28 multidisciplinary teams that together represented a $21 million investment. Clearly, this points to the exiting future that awaits interdisciplinary research at the NSF and at research universities, like USF, nationwide.
Increasingly, team science is proving successful in multi-institutional settings as well. Think COVID-19 and how, on a global stage, artificial intelligence was leveraged with medicine and pharmaceutical sciences, plus academia and industry, in a broadly concerted effort to tackle the virus.
This view toward interdisciplinary research, which fires imaginations at the NSF and inspires deep inquiry at laboratories and universities worldwide, also rests at the heart of our approach to research at USF.
In fact, USF’s mission statement asserts that the university, “in partnership with our communities, serves the people of Florida, the nation, and the world by fostering intellectual inquiry and outcomes that positively shape the future – regionally, nationally and globally.” Accordingly, one key way we meet this mission is to “conduct high-impact research and innovation to advance frontiers of knowledge, solve global problems and improve lives.”
Indeed, our USF Research Strategic Plan is already focused on “issues where society urgently needs innovation and change,” and emphasizes interdisciplinary collaboration to get there.
“The challenges facing scientists and scholars around deep, impactful topics such as COVID-19 and others require cooperation of wide-ranging academic disciplines.”
At the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus, the Office of Research provides IR grants to help faculty tackle complex questions best addressed through collaboration. In fact, the 2021 grant cycle saw a wide cross-section of researchers – from natural sciences and engineering, education and the arts, and social and behavioral sciences – collaborating from a multi-disciplinary perspective.
The office’s IR investments, meanwhile, have run the gamut, from sustainability projects relating to climate change to an engineering study of the water and nutrients of craft beer. Another recent project examined Black social justice – including the Artfully Inclusive Manatee project – as well as racial disparities in elementary schools and the roles integrated social awareness and conflict resolution can play. Further research, tied to the pandemic, examined the efficacy of robotics in disinfection, the impacts of rehab for COVID-19 positive persons and vaccine hesitancy.
In a related effort, the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus recently launched the Trail Blazer Scholar Awards program to expand the training and research experiences of graduate students across USF.
The program, spearheaded by faculty from the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus, supports co-mentoring within a cross-section of disciplines, and many of the grants assigned to the scholars help address complex questions using IR team strategies.So far, we are delighted with the progress of the program’s inaugural scholars, and their preliminary feedback is promising.
Interdisciplinary research brings diverse perspectives to complex problems. Consider the COVID-19 pandemic and how myriad resources were summoned to tackle the pandemic. But even now, as the worst of the pandemic appears to have receded – at least for the moment – more is to be learned and more questions to be asked. Among these, how, for example, did government-mandated “stay-at-home” orders impact our environment? What long-term impacts are still to be felt on our economy, health, educational system and our society at large?
The challenges facing scientists and scholars around deep, impactful topics such as COVID-19, and others, require cooperation of wide-ranging academic disciplines.
In the same way, the vision for the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus aligns with this spirit of collaboration.
In fact, it is in this spirit, that the university aims to deepen its commitment to integrated learning through the construction of the Nursing/STEM Building.
The addition of the Nursing/ STEM Building will provide the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus with leading-edge facilities and technological infrastructure to advance interdisciplinary research, optimizing the culture of collaboration across USF’s campuses and catalyzing research experiences for students beginning as early as their freshman year.
Facilities and research infrastructure investments are critical as science and technology, working with arts and the humanities, define the future and power our economy.
Our “return on investment” from interdisciplinary research is evident not only in the questions answered and discoveries made, but in the impact these investments have on our students and how, once graduated, they will in turn impact their communities and our country.
About the Author
Sandra Justice, CRA, is the associate director of the Office of Research and Innovation at the University of South Florida. She has served as a research administrator at USF for more than 15 years, leading the research office at the Sarasota-Manatee campus since 2017, with oversight for all Sarasota-Manatee campus research programs and grant services as a key member of the administrative leadership team of the Regional Chancellor. She serves on the Task Force for the USF Pandemic Response Research Network (PRRN) and is a member of the National Organization for Research Development Professionals (NORDP), Society of Research Administrators International (SRAI) and National Council of University Research Administrators (NCURA). She most recently received a JRA Arthur Fellowship for her study examining the impact of grant writing workshops on faculty productivity.