Interdisciplinary Laboratories, Centers, and Institutes
The interdisciplinary laboratories, centers, and institutes provide significant support for interdisciplinary research at Stanford. They involve hundreds of faculty members, administrative, research, technical staff, and students at all levels. These units play a critical role in the Stanford mission of creating and sharing knowledge.
Interdisciplinary research centers draw on the strengths of schools and departments across the University. The interdisciplinary research centers are managed by the Vice Provost and Dean of Research, Dr. Ann Arvin.
5 Questions Ann Arvin on Stanford's History of Collaboration
Stanford recently announced two new institutes that bridge departmental and school boundaries — the Stanford Neurosciences Institute and the Stanford Chemistry, Engineering & Medicine for Human Health (ChEM-H) — bringing the number of university-wide interdisciplinary laboratories, centers and institutes on campus to 18.
These institutes are in line with Stanford's longstanding tradition of the "independent labs" that bring researchers together to solve large problems, engaging faculty and their students in collaborations that range from international and economic studies to studies on the environment, energy and health. The growing trend toward interdisciplinary research recognizes the need to share expertise in tackling complex problems and is fueled in part by increased funding for projects that span disciplines. Writer Amy Adams recently sat down with Ann Arvin, MD, dean of research and vice provost, to talk about Stanford's focus on interdisciplinary research. Arvin is also the Lucile Salter Packard Professor of Pediatrics and a professor of microbiology and immunology.
Q: One of the buzzwords at Stanford is collaboration. Faculty easily cross lines and work outside boundaries. Why does that seem to flourish so easily here?
Arvin: We are fortunate that our tradition of fostering collaborative research was established years ago and became official back in 1982, when then-provost Albert Hastorf signed a very forward-thinking policy that called for interdisciplinary institutes to promote collaboration. The first independent labs were mostly in the hard sciences, but others that followed shortly thereafter were what is now the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, the Stanford Institute for Economic Research and Policy and the Stanford Humanities Center. These programs paved the way for us to take advantage of new opportunities for interdisciplinary research and scholarship that are all around us now.
An important element of the Stanford organizational structure is that the dean of research is designated as the cognizant dean for the independent institutes. Again, the policy was very forward-looking because having a champion within any complex institution is needed. This structure is unusual among our research university peers.
Another very specific historic reason collaboration succeeds at Stanford is that we have seven schools, including our professional schools, on one campus. Even though Stanford can seem like a very big place, if you consider how many opportunities there are for faculty from various disciplines to encounter each other, you can appreciate why it's not so hard to overcome barriers to collaboration.
Q: Even with faculty on one campus, disciplines have distinct cultures that can present their own barriers. How do you facilitate crossing those lines?
Arvin: Much of what we do through the institutes and with school-based centers that cross disciplines is provide the venues and gathering places for faculty and students to get together, whether in a formal setting to hear talks by people who are coming at a problem from many different angles, such as the Uncommon Dialogues of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, or in informal discussions where they learn approaches and ways of thinking that are relevant for their work. Of course, creating new collaborations is not an overnight thing. We also actively encourage interdisciplinary work by offering seed grants to teams of researchers, which have proved to be remarkably effective for bringing people together in productive collaborations.
In recent years Stanford has literally been building to enhance collaboration. Many of our newer buildings have a mix of different school-based programs and interdisciplinary labs and institutes. The Clark Center, which houses Bio-X, was really groundbreaking in that regard, placing faculty and students from different departments and schools side by side. It defined a new model for subsequent buildings bringing together researchers with diverse expertise. For example, Y2E2 [the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building] is home to the Precourt Institute for Energy, the Woods Institute for the Environment and departments from the School of Earth Sciences and the School of Engineering. In addition to engineers and Earth scientists, those institutes also have faculty from the School of Law and the School of Humanities & Sciences. So the university has been creating a physical structure that mirrors research directions as we moved into a phase of expanding Stanford's interdisciplinary focus. We expect the new buildings being planned for the neurosciences and chemical biology institutes to continue this paradigm shift.
Q: Why the increased focus on interdisciplinary research? Have disciplines become too specialized?
Arvin: I don't think the disciplines have become too specialized at all. I am a firm believer that disciplines must be strong. But the intersections of disciplines are places where new ideas emerge and innovative research happens.
We are at a time in the history of science where the work that the disciplines have been doing is spilling out over the tops of whatever silos we have had. Researchers are finding that the analytical frameworks and the tools of one discipline are suddenly very relevant to other disciplines and revolutionizing the research that can be done.
That's why Bio-X [which bridges biology, the biomedical sciences, the physical sciences and engineering] was so groundbreaking when it was founded in 1998. Faculty who led this initiative had remarkable foresight about how these scientific disciplines would benefit from coming together in proximity in the Clark Center and through the networks created among faculty across the campus. The new Institute for Chemical Biology has also emerged from this tipping point. It connects people from chemistry, physics and biology in new research that will have major benefits for human health.
Our students are another important reason to encourage and facilitate interdisciplinary research. In fact, the momentum to take these approaches often comes from students who are highly motivated to seek out interdisciplinary opportunities. At the same time, we have to prepare our students to be able to function well in the new environment for research and scholarship where the ability to cross boundaries is increasingly important for success.
Q: The independent entities at Stanford often span many departments and schools. Are they ever at cross-purposes with the schools?
Arvin: Yes. It's not always tidy. As deans, we have to really work together to balance objectives in what sometimes involves a creative tension. For example, the departments and schools have the authority over faculty appointments, which the dean of research does not have, except for some faculty in the policy-related institutes, while the dean of research may be responsible for research space where the faculty member's program is located. But these challenges and the need to find common ground are just part of what it means to build and sustain these exciting new programs. A structure of schools and departments with independent labs, centers and institutes matrixed across this traditional organization may not be the easiest way to manage a university, but I think it has been quite well-accepted that the opportunities it creates are worth the effort.
Q: How much do you worry about the unpredictable nature of federal funding for scientific research?
Arvin: The fact that research funding is flat and has been so for several years now is very worrisome. Stanford faculty and students are fortunate to have some more diverse sources of support, including generous donors and industry partners, but I see no substitute for the national investment in university research. The most important priority of the Office of the Dean of Research is to help faculty be competitive for outside funding, which at the same time provides critical support for students and postdoctoral scholars. In this difficult environment, we have found that being able to put together an interdisciplinary team of investigators and providing pilot project support often enhances competitiveness for federal and foundation grants. That said, we know that research universities like Stanford are where fundamental discovery science gets done, and we need to communicate more effectively about this fact and the serious risks that are posed by reduced support.
About the Interdisciplinary Labs
Exploring Fundamental Science
Bringing scientists and engineers together in unique centers, Stanford has advanced the understanding of our universe. Through innovative applications of technology to science, we can examine space and time, light, and material.
Protecting Our Environment
Protecting our planet requires an integrated focus on land, water, air, and energy. Solutions will require the combined efforts of scientists and engineers along with researchers in business and law.
Understanding the Human Condition
Problem-solving in the 21st century will take depth of knowledge and breadth of skill across the range of political, economic, technical, scientific, and legal studies.
- Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford (FSI)
- Center for the Study of Language and Information (CSLI)
- Stanford Center on Longevity (SCL)
- Stanford Humanities Center
- Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR)
- Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASB)
Improving Human Health
Stanford has organized interdisciplinary approaches to increasingly complex problems dealing with the medical and biological sciences. Stanford’s Bio-X program, for example, joins engineers, chemists, computer scientists, and physicists with our medical researchers to find solutions.
- Bio-X, the interdisciplinary program related to bioengineering, biosciences, and biomedicine
- Spectrum (formerly the Stanford Center for Clinical and Translational Education and Research)
- Stanford Chemistry, Engineering & Medicine for Human Health (ChEM-H) serves to strengthen the chemical foundations of biomedical science and to accelerate molecular discoveries that transform human health
- Stanford Neurosciences Institute
The following Stanford research facilities report administratively to the Vice Provost and Dean of Research:
- Stanford University Mass Spectrometry Center
- Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging Center
- Stanford Nano Shared Facilities
View all shared resources at Stanford.
External Resources to Assist You in Interdisciplinary Research
This site is a guide to the different mechanisms through which NSF promotes and supports interdisciplinary research. They provide information on whom to contact for assistance in deciding where and how to submit an interdisciplinary proposal. A primary purpose of this site is to assist investigators in submitting an unsolicited interdisciplinary proposal for which there may not be a natural "home" in one of the existing NSF programs.
The intent of NIH Common Fund programs is to provide a strategic and nimble approach to address key roadblocks in biomedical research that impede basic scientific discovery and its translation into improved human health. In addition, these programs capitalize on emerging opportunities to catalyze the rate of progress across multiple biomedical fields.
The Common Fund’s Interdisciplinary Research (IR) program goal is to change academic research culture such that interdisciplinary approaches and team science spanning various biomedical and behavioral specialties are encouraged and rewarded. The program includes the following components:
Interdisciplinary Training Programs
Innovation in Interdisciplinary Technology and Methods
Multiple Principal Investigator (Multi-PI) Policy
Published in 2010 by the NIH. The Field Guide was developed to help all researchers navigate some of the rocky and murky territory associated with building a team either on their own or at the request of someone in their organization.
Published June 29, 2012: Jacqueline Resnick (bio) explains the difference between two approaches to research.
Published January 9, 2008: Megan R. Gunnar (bio) encourages young researchers to nurture an independent identity while working collaboratively.
Published 2004, National Academy of Science: Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research examines current interdisciplinary research efforts and recommends ways to stimulate and support such research.
Advances in science and engineering increasingly require the collaboration of scholars from various fields. This shift is driven by the need to address complex problems that cut across traditional disciplines, and the capacity of new technologies to both transform existing disciplines and generate new ones. At the same time, however, interdisciplinary research can be impeded by policies on hiring, promotion, tenure, proposal review, and resource allocation that favor traditional disciplines.
This report identifies steps that researchers, teachers, students, institutions, funding organizations, and disciplinary societies can take to more effectively conduct, facilitate, and evaluate interdisciplinary research programs and projects. Throughout the report key concepts are illustrated with case studies and results of the committee s surveys of individual researchers and university provosts.