Linking the Sciences – An interview with the AGI 50th Anniversary Symposium Keynote Speakers

by Janice O. Childress – Geotimes December 1998

The spectacular technological achievements of the 20th century have created new lifestyle and workplace opportunities, but they have created complex problems as well. Today’s workforce is learning to solve some of these problems by forming alliances with professionals from outside their own areas of expertise and from different cultures as well. “Multidisciplinary collaboration” is the modern catchword that describes this trend toward new, global working relationships.

At the 50th Anniversary Symposium of the American Geological Institute (AGI) last month, earth scientists heard four leaders, chosen from outside the geosciences, describe how their communities are striving to establish multidisciplinary collaborations in their own fields. S. James Adelstein, executive dean of Harvard Medical School for 19 years, co-chaired a National Research Council/National Institute of Medicine committee several years ago that focused on promoting research collaboration between the physical sciences, engineering, and medicine. Paul S. Anderson, senior vice president of DuPont Pharmaceutical Co., is past president of the American Chemical Society, an organization representing more than 152,000 chemists and chemical engineers, ranging from DNA researchers to petroleum refiners. John Vander Sande is associate (and acting) dean of the School of Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), overseeing eight engineering departments and creating new academic programs that involve the faculty of other schools at MIT. Craig Anderson is president of the National Council of Churches, former bishop of the Diocese of South Dakota, rector of St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., and the Episcopal Church’s representative to the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Decade. He has devoted years of his ministry to the concerns of Native Americans in the United States and women worldwide.

These four speakers understand the “art” of striking a balance – serving needs of diverse groups of individuals while adhering to the overall mission and goals of a large organization. Prior to the symposium, Geotimes asked them to respond to a series of questions that examine the challenges posed by several societies seeking to work together.

What is the importance of professional societies in the maintenance and advancement of your field?

Vander Sande: Within the profession of engineering, there are a number of disciplines and subdisciplines, such as mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, chemical engineers, and so on – all of them, except for industrial engineers, represented in the eight departments within MIT’s School of Engineering. Each of these disciplines has one or more professional societies active in that specific area. Most of our faculty, research staff, graduate students – even undergraduates – are members of one or more of these professional societies. Their activity is important to the evolution of those societies and also to them professionally.

But when we move away from the strongly vertical organizations to professional societies that are broader in scope, MIT’s engineers tend to not be as heavily involved. The work of these groups is interesting, but not as necessary to our professions. Part of the reason is because research plays an important role in our professional careers; therefore we find the greatest value in research-oriented professional societies. And, of course, there are time constraints. At many universities, including MIT, the faculty is spread thinly between teaching, research, and service. Some things have to fall off the plate.

P. Anderson: the American Chemical Society (ACS) offers a wide range of professional services, designed to help its members stay up-to-date with the latest developments in their field. For example, ACS publishes a number of scientific journals, such as the Journal of the American Chemical Society and the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, which are considered among the world’s leading journals in these fields. ACS also runs Chemical Abstracts, our profession’s principal repository of both chemical and biological references from all over the world.

Another important part of the society’s mission is advocacy – representing our members in Washington D.C., promoting federal funding for scientific research, and explaining the value of chemical science to the public.

Do you think the role of professional societies is going to change in the future?

Adelstein: I don’t think so. In my field, professional societies play an important role in advancing news of scientific and medical advances and serving as clearinghouses for information and issues relating to the practice of medicine.

How do we make federations work more effectively? How can an organization “herd” its members toward fulfillment of its overall mission?

P. Anderson: For and organization to be effective, individual members need to feel that they’re being represented and that the issues addressed are pertinent to their needs. The American Chemical Society has a governing structure that operates at both national and local levels. The society has an elected council of 500 members, with representatives from the local sections in every state of the union. Local sections address issues that apply to their region, but they also contribute to programs that are broad in scope. National Chemistry Week, for example, is a public outreach activity coordinated by the Washington office, but run by local chemists in communities all across the nation. The professional staff in Washington is there to serve both the national elected council and all the local sections.

Vander Sande: Well, trying to manage faculty members is like trying to herd cats or flies. Faculty members have a bit more freedom than engineers in business and industry. In the business world, the boss says something must be done and the troops may grumble, but they fall into line – or get out. I can’t “order” tenured professors around, so I look for ways to persuade; I must marshal good arguments.

How can we achieve higher levels of cooperation between fields?

Adelstein: When there’s a common interest between scientific federations, they work well together. But realistically, there are also territorial challenges – when one group perceives that another is trodding on its turf. One way to lessen the danger of turf wars is through support for interdisciplinary research, which brings otherwise diverse communities together in a common project.

A committee that I co-chaired several years ago produced a report in 1990 outlining the factors that keep people separated and the factors that can encourage collaboration. What’s key to the success of multidisciplinary projects is the willingness of the participants to accept completely new working relationships – in effect, to serve as pioneers. If the participants dig in their heels and resist changes to the status quo, these out-of-field collaborations are likely to break down. Furthermore, the committee found that these collaborative projects must be well supported by university administrations; federal funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and Department of Energy; and private foundations, which have and important and unique role to play in encouraging new, untried ventures – the kind of cutting-edge or risky research least likely to be supported by government of profit-motivated institutions.

Vander Sande: Cooperation is driven by the concept of mutual benefit. In a business context, we would call this “defining the potential customer” – the one you seek to attract. For academics, the customers are the students. For researchers, the customer is a government agency or industrial sponsor. Then you identify what the customer needs. Once you understand your customers, they will pull you into cooperative, problem-solving interactions. That customer pull is the dynamic that enables different groups of people – engineers and geoscientists, for instance – to work together.

An institute comprised of diverse member societies needs to think globally – to define the projects and issues of interest to a major segment of an audience. Education programs come immediately to mind. Those are the projects that should be given proper visibility.

C Anderson: The answer lies in our willingness to accept perspectives different than our own and even to incorporate them. I served for nine years as bishop of the Diocese of South Dakota. Those years truly transformed my life and my way of thinking. Of the 120 Episcopal congregations in that diocese, 80 are on reservations of the Great Sioux Nation. I entered a whole new world, where people had a different understanding of spirituality and the relationship of spirituality and Earth. As I interacted with these congregations and grew to understand their spirituality, I received a new perspective on how we – the “dominant” culture, as the Sioux describe us – perceive Earth. Many Americans see Earth as real estate. But Native Americans see Earth as a part of themselves, inseparable from them. My work on the reservations taught me that when we open ourselves up to new perspectives, we can more fully understand the richness and breadth of the religious experience.

What potential is there for collaboration between your field and the earth sciences?

Adelstein: Medicine has two principal parts – prevention and treatment. Earth scientists have an important role to play in the prevention of illness. It would be particularly effective, for example, to bring the medical community together with the earth-science community to deal with issues of global warming which would have an enormous impact on public health. What are the health consequences of climate change? Of sea-level rise? What are the health consequences of algae blooms, persistent organic pollutants, or degraded water quality?

Some health problems are clearly the result of environmental degradation; others reflect a more complex interaction between humans and the environment – such as the radon problem. Another example would be the issue of ultraviolet radiation. Malignant melanomas are very prevalent in areas of the world where the ozone layer has been breached. Australia is a case in point. Children in Australia cannot go to school without wearing hats.

I see opportunities for successful collaborations between the medical and geoscience communities on global issues such as these.

Vander Sande: In the engineering community, we have seen, and expect to continue seeing, very healthy interaction between engineers and geoscientists. The School of Sciences at MIT includes the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). Faculty members in four of our engineering departments interact closely with EAPS faculty. Our Ocean Engineering Department prepares students to work on projects designing oil rigs, piers, and harbors. They need to know about the geologic land/water interface. Students in our Nuclear Engineering Department must understand the dynamics of earth systems in order to design stable structures. Issues of water, forests, and the near-surface atmosphere are very important for all engineers to understand; therefore, our faculty members routinely schedule joint meetings with the faculty of EAPS.

One major driver that will keep the two disciplines working closely together is a mutual concern for the environment. Before the environmental movement, humans were not always conscious of their impact on Earth. Now we have to make up for lots of sins – it’s a burden we share with our earth-science colleagues.

MIT’s engineers appreciate the approach and talent of scientists. But geoscientists should try to be a bit more concerned about how you put what you know into practice. The more that geoscientists can get their heads around that concept, the better their relationships with engineers will be. It’s not a dirty place to go.

C. Anderson: Theologians talk about incarnation – human beings’ relationship with Earth. The quotation from “Genesis” stating that God gave man dominion over Earth is actually a mistranslation of the Hebrew text. The original word really means “stewardship.” We all need to take this concept more seriously to pay attention to the sanctity of Earth. There is a good bit of talk about a new epistemology: the concept that scientific investigation is also informed by intuition and cultural beliefs. Scientific method excludes certain realities in focusing on that which is appropriate to its discrete discipline. I believe that scientists need to be willing to examine that exclusion in terms of methodology. Geoscientists must realize that what they know about Earth reflects not only their scholarship and experience but their imagination and intuition.

It has been said that some of the greatest opportunities for “breakthroughs” – whether in research or other areas – lie at the boundaries between fields. Do you agree?

P. Anderson: Oh yes. An interface with chemistry exists in almost every field of science – biology, materials science, electronics, geology. And many young faculty members in university chemistry departments are engaged in interdisciplinary work. So the trend will continue to grow. Some fields, such as DNA research, are particularly conducive to multidisciplinary advances. Biology is becoming less of a descriptive science and more molecular in content. Molecular biology is actually a form of chemistry anyway.

Adelstein: Many medical discoveries, such as HRI and CT imaging or artificial heart valves, are interdisciplinary breakthroughs. Unfortunately, some factors inhibit collaboration – a principal one being communication. Groups of scientists have different vocabularies of technical jargon and, at times, literally don’t speak the same language. Or a barrier may be caused by different approaches to problem-solving. The physical sciences and engineering worlds focus on analysis, whereas the life and health sciences stress observation and evaluation. These discrepancies can be corrected by requiring students to take basic courses in a wider range of scientific disciplines – not only biology and chemistry, but physics and earth science as well.

Certainly, one way to encourage diverse groups of people to come together is to sponsor meetings that address themes of mutual concern. A meeting that focuses on practical uses for technical transfer, for example, would draw participants from several professions. To make it work, though, the participants have to see the benefits and opportunities for themselves.

Vander Sande: We all appreciate and applaud those people who are visionary and creative. Not all creative people work at the boundaries, but some do. What’s necessary is to be forward-thinking. As an administrator, I concern myself with the interfaces between individual departments and the School of Engineering, and between our school and the other schools at MIT.

On July 1, for example, we formed a new division: Bioengineering and Environmental Health. Obviously it will work at the interface between disciplines. And we’re in the process of forming another division, Engineering Systems, which will have a strong interface with the Sloan School of Management. Increasingly, engineers will be practicing in an arena of complex systems. Think of some typical systems – an automobile, an airplane, airport, offshore drilling rig, underground mine. The demands are very real; it takes a huge team of people to make these systems work. We must educate our students to work in an increasingly complex world. At MIT, we believe theses newly formed divisions will help us all prepare for it. Some of our faculty members will work entirely in a division, others will split their time between a division and their own engineering department, still others will not be associated with the new divisions at all.

C. Anderson: We theologians talk of the proliferation of specialties within the theological “encyclopedia.” These subdisciplines are good and necessary, but what’s often lost is the bridge between disciplines – the ability to talk to one another. Some will say, “Ours is the only truth.” But that way of thinking limits the promise of breakthroughs. It’s better to look at the bridges. The bridges become the way to advance our own understanding.

There are many interfaces with disciplines – behavioral science, natural science, political science – outside the world of theology. In terms of foreign policy, ours is one of the few nations that separates church and state. But we should not have pride in our beliefs. Instead, we must build respect for other traditions and cultures. Our political leaders need to be aware of religion as a powerful factor in other cultures. Most fighting in the world has a religious base, founded on religious misunderstandings from Bosnia to Beirut to Belfast. Far too often, we demonize the enemy in the name of God. But leaders like Desmond Tutu have shown us that it is possible to bridge a political chasm and forge policy from a spiritual base.

But how does this philosophy translate to science? What new insights can we acquire? Some scientists think, “This is our turf; a narrow ‘scientism,’ we have the most important corner on the truth.” But can there be an appreciation for another element, another point of view? Stewardship of Earth must be grounded in a moral commitment that transcends pure scientific inquiry and acknowledges other value systems and beliefs.

This is a very exciting time to live. The walls between disciplines are breaking down. These new affiliations will be successful if we can accept that our way is not the only way.

Janice O. Childress

Jan Childress is managing editor of Geotimes magazine.

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