U of C signals further commitment to interdisciplinary research

The University unveiled the Arete Initivative last Thursday, a project aimed at helping faculty develop large-scale interdisciplinary approaches to profound questions.

By Christina Schwartz

The University unveiled the Arete Initivative last Thursday, a project aimed at helping faculty develop large-scale interdisciplinary approaches to profound questions.

The goal is to remove some of the roadblocks that often prevent large-scale research between disciplines, according to a press release, including difficulty dividing the cost of research among departmental grants and with coordinating meetings between busy faculty members.

“No one intends for these barriers to exist, but they get thrown up and remain only because no one realized they were obstacles,” said John Cacioppo, a psychology professor and director of the Initiative. “We try to help solve these problems.”

The initiative first developed from a partnership between Cacioppo, Matthew Christian, administrative director the University’s center of cognitive and social neuroscience, and Ken Olliff, director for strategic foundation initiatives.

“We worked on a few collaborative projects together in the behavioral sciences and began to think that developing interdisciplinary projects was interesting, useful and would be helpful to the University,” Olliff said.

The Initiative invites University faculty members to bring proposals to Arete, which will then aim to facilitate interdisciplinary research.

“Arete brings together groups of researchers where no one of them would be able to do the project on their own,” Olliff said. “You need all the different knowledge bases to understand this really complex and thorny problem.”

Arete will aid in brainstorming about the project and connecting the project leader with other faculty members who are working on similar projects or who might be interested in collaborating. Two full-time staff members will help to handle operations, working with project development, scheduling meetings, and locating funding.

Arete also arranges for faculty at other institutions to visit the U of C to participate in projects.

A faculty adviser board will serve to strengthen Arete’s support system, Cacioppo said. The deans of each division and professional school will each appoint one representative to the board in addition to representatives from Argonne National Laboratory and the computational institute. These individuals will give advice on what research opportunities Arete should pursue and will monitor the faculty to see who stands out as potential project leaders.

In October 2007, during its pilot year, Arete helped organize the Wisdom Search Network grants, inviting biologists, theologists, and philosophers to explore the notion of wisdom.

Deemed a success, Arete was vetted and approved by the administration as a University initiative run out of the Office of the Vice President for Research and National Laboratories and the Office of the Provost.

Currently, the Initiative receives about a proposal a month from faculty. It is working on approximately 20 project and anticipates an increase in the future.

“The trend in all area is moving toward drawing from the resources of a larger team. Sciences have a lot to offer but the humanities and social sciences have a huge amount of information that has not yet been properly integrated,” said Christian.

Researchers are embracing the potential for collaboration on projects like CIM-EARTH, Community Integrated Model for Energy and Resource Trajectories for Humankind. The aim is to create a model of the impact of long term energy use by humans.

“It stands to make a major different in how we do modeling. The government is making trillion dollar decisions based on old models that are run on excel spreadsheets. These models should be run on supercomputers,” Christian said. “The University of Chicago really has a chance to accelerate this collaborative process and move it forward.”

The initiative also provides opportunities for students to become involved as research assistants on these interdisciplinary research projects.

Although Arete is not directly linked with the Big Problems program in the College, Olliff commented that there is a possibility of projects developing into big problems courses.

The Arete initiative is an affirmation of the university’s commitment to interdisciplinary research and provides an infostructure and support system for faculty to succeed in these large-scale projects.

“We function on ideas and what happens here is we get people together who are looking at big problems and work to help solve them,” Christian said. “Promoting interdisciplinary study is not about tenure or building buildings, it is about providing structures to make sure that they are successful and that we keep the University of Chicago innovative enough to be a 21st century institution.”