Universities face a real dilemma with regards to their mission in the world. Most research universities proclaim in a mission statement that they strive to use knowledge in the service of society. However, the academic structures and reward systems currently in place largely dismiss interdisciplinary, real-world relevant research projects – exactly the type of research necessary for the betterment of society. This is all too true in economics, where “policy relevance” seems to be used synonymously for “easy” and “uninteresting.” But academics in other disciplines as well are taking a real risk with their career when they spend too much time working on interdisciplinary and policy-relevant work.
It’s no secret that academics from various disciplines struggle to collaborate on projects. This is often correctly attributed to that fact that academia has become so specialized, that people working in different fields do not have a common language with which they can communicate. Even within one department, the labor economists may very well have little idea what the growth theorists are up to. But there is another factor at work, and that is the lack of credit and prestige that comes from working on such projects. Specialized academics gain little in the way of reputation and useful citations when publishing this sort of interesting, interdisciplinary work, and so there is little incentive for them to try to learn another discipline’s language even if they might want to do so.
The next time I hear a university Provost speak, I want to ask them how their university is dealing with an academic structure that impedes creative and collaborative research done in the service of society. In addition, this highlights once again the importance for both students and faculty to play a meaningful role in the decision making process of the university, which has been increasingly relinquished to the Board of Trustees and the business side of private American universities. Reclaiming that power would go a long way towards shifting the American university back to its role as an institution of service to society.