A group of smiling people
A field school in Fiji taught by a mutlidisciplinary team of faculty from the Biocultural Initiative of the Pacific.

The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Biocultural Initiative of the Pacific, a knowledge center and network linking scholars, instructors and students who share the common goal of thinking holistically to enhance understanding of biocultural systems, is now part of a new, multi-university project that will explore how to make interdisciplinary research more effective and impactful for students and communities, with a focus on sustainability science.

The two-year research project is funded with a $500,000 grant from the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI), and includes 12 universities from across the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. It is one of three winners of the new NAKFI Challenge competition, chosen from a field of 79 proposals.

UH Mānoa professors Tamara Ticktin, Davianna Pōmaikaʻi McGregor, Alexander Mawyer and Gary Holton serve as co-directors of the UH Mānoa Biocultural Initiative of the Pacific.

“We need to learn to collaborate better across disciplines, as well as with community members, resource managers and others, if we hope to effectively address the sustainability issues we face,” said Ticktin, professor in the Department of Botany.

“In undertaking this project, we will draw upon the experience of the interdisciplinary network of faculty who are members of the UH Biocultural Initiative,” adds Pōmaikaʻi McGregor, professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies. “We also want to partner with UH Mānoa’s new Institute of Sustainability and Resilience and recognize the broad network of faculty who are offering courses on sustainability across various departments and colleges.”

Measuring impact, supporting students and fostering co-development

The new network will explore how institutions are addressing three key challenges to interdisciplinary research: measuring impact, supporting students and fostering co-development.

It will look at metrics universities could use, for example, in staff tenure policies or measures of student achievement that would be suitable in an interdisciplinary environment; how research questions and methodologies can be co-designed with the communities, organizations and agencies that will ultimately put the research into action; and how to create programs that train students to work in interdisciplinary ways.

“Students from across our local and regional communities will benefit as we better identify how to provide impactful opportunities to link their concrete, practical training in STEM, social sciences and humanities disciplines to issues which cut across fields and degrees” says Mawyer, associate professor in the Center for Pacific Islands Studies.

Identifying best practices for long-term reform

Although more universities are adopting interdisciplinary approaches to research by creating institutes, graduate programs and other mechanisms, stand-alone programs that do not lead to larger systemic changes may miss significant opportunities to contribute to pressing educational, research, and practical needs in a challenging world. By finding out what works and identifying best practices, the network will help organizations move from experimenting with interdisciplinary approaches to embedding it as part of long-term institutional reform.

“This new effort will provide the support structures which will enable both faculty and students to engage more fully in interdisciplinary projects,“ says Holton, professor in the Department of Linguistics.

The project is led by the University of Minnesota and Duke University.