Breaking Down Silos Builds Stronger Research

DES MOINES, Iowa — Issues facing the world are not divided into academic departments, and universities should reflect that reality in their search for solutions, Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said at the Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium.

“The big issues almost always require social sciences as well as traditional life sciences,”  McPherson said during a panel on breaking down silos in grant work. “Just think about the big issues, you need people along with the technical solution.”

As the head of a far-reaching association, Mcherson has seen a clear shift from how universities talk about conducting research through multi-department cooperation. Many now actually put this change into action.

“With these grand challenges, it’s just as much about equity as it is about agronomy,” said Cathann Kress, agricultural administration vice president and dean of the College of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences at Ohio State University. “And it’s just as much about political science as it is about animal science.”

Kendall Lamkey, professor and chair of the Department of Agronomy at Iowa State University, agreed that allowing faculty to synthesize knowledge they’ve gathered can not only glue the faculty strongly together as a whole, it allows for a more complete solution to be found.

There are still obstacles, however. One obstacle for true interdepartmental research is that grants are often based on which department is applying. If professors from different departments apply together for a grant, after the grant money is divided between them, the researchers go their separate ways to complete their studies, Kress said.

Having multiple department representatives in grant proposal review panels may help limit that issue, said Lamkey, as it would facilitate more opinions. Within a college, one question could invoke multiple answers depending on which department was asked, he said. Having all possible answers represented could result in more comprehensive research.

For example, McPherson said, when the University of Toledo took on water quality issues in Lake Erie, the UT Water Task Force was created. The Task Force was made up of professors from multiple colleges, including civil engineering, environmental science, medicine, political science and public administration, finance and economics. They cooperated with other universities in the area, local governments and communities when searching for possible solutions to toxic water as well.

When working on the issue, he said, no one focused on what department a person was from, but instead what knowledge and experience they could add to the work being done.

Problems are not departmental, Lamkey said, so research should not be either.