Quantum Information Sciences. Information
Technology. Sensing Networks. Few engineering departments
have these cross-disciplinary titles, yet they are all major university
research initiatives and offer strong funding opportunities. National
Science Foundation cross-disciplinary programs such as Biocomplexity
in the Environment and Nanoscale Science are enjoying
large increases while core programs like engineering are slated to
grow at less than the rate of inflation.
Successful research universities are adapting to the
changing research environment by following matrix management principles,
wherein one dimension of the matrix is defined by teaching and the
other by research. In the matrix model, faculty members are encouraged
to develop and participate in research programs that span multiple
Yet matrix management is easier to conceptualize than
implement in universities. Even when a university is doing well at
cross-disciplinary research, hiring, promotions, and space are typically
the prerogative of departments, weakening the power of the research
The dean's office plays a critical role by ensuring
that faculty positions do not become department entitlements or, even
worse, entitlements of subdisciplines. Positions should be awarded
to the best recruits from the entire school, so that departments are
encouraged to search more broadly, and nontraditionally. That said,
joint appointments are not the panacea. A school is truly cross disciplinary
when faculty research flourishes across departments independent of
To nurture research, schools must facilitate interactions
among faculty. Relationships frequently begin through informal contact
in the hallway, so schools need to pay attention to building design
and space allocation. The University of Southern California's
new Tutor Hall of Engineering will have no assigned academic departments.
It will instead contain research laboratories organized along cross-disciplinary
It is important for schools to regularly appraise the
state of cross-disciplinary research by defining the areas in which
faculty are already collaborating as well as areas of opportunity.
At USC, research clusters are used to target information
about research opportunities for faculty, organize workshops, and create
new centers. We have also established an interdisciplinary fellows program,
which gives one year of teaching relief to faculty who wish to organize
new research activities.
Finally, cross-disciplinary research can be nurtured
through institutes or centers with full-time research staffs. USC's
Information Sciences Institute (ISI) provides glue for faculty working
on IT research. Likewise, ISI has been integrated into departmental
missions through research faculty appointments, course instruction,
and Ph.D. student supervision.
The reward that comes to faculty members for cross-disciplinary
research is intellectual, and financial in the sense that it makes
them more competitive in attracting funding. But cross-disciplinary
research can also be risky, so it is important for schools to create
environments where faculty members are encouraged to take chances.
This means substantial rewards for successspace, salary, or recognitionminimal
penalties for failure, and some degree of patience.
We have seen the payoff that comes from working across
disciplines in terms of our ability to attract outstanding faculty,
initiate cutting-edge research, fund new centers, increase our research
volume, and elevate our academic reputation. Empowering the research
dimension of the organizational matrix is the key.
Randolph Hall is Senior Associate
Dean for Research in the School of Engineering, and chair of the
Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering
at University of Southern California.