In Ivy League, science research an interdisciplinary venture

Although popular perception may see the United States as falling behind in producing scientists, all may not be lost — at least within the Ivy League.

Both Yale and Columbia have launched expansion programs involving the acquisition of new land that will strengthen and expand existing resources in science and engineering. Both expansions reflect a trend in scientific research across U.S. higher institutions — one that indicates a recent shift toward a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to science research and education, according to higher education analysts and college science professors.

In New York City, there’s Manhattanville — 17 acres of West Harlem that Columbia is currently restructuring following the city council’s approval last month. The newly acquired land, located about two-thirds of a mile north of the heart of campus, will contain the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, a facility being built to house multidisciplinary neuroscience initiatives involving genetics, computer science and psychology. The building should be finished by 2015 in accordance with the completion of the expansion’s first phase.

And in Connecticut, there’s West Campus — Yale’s biggest science expansion in years, a former Bayer facility, located in Orange and West Haven. The campus, comprising 550,000 square feet, will contain state-of-the-art laboratory buildings that will be ready to use, at the earliest, by summer 2008. And according to University President Richard Levin, this site will be a place for scientists to transcend traditional disciplines and to conduct collaborative research across Yale’s various professional schools.

The shift toward interdisciplinary research marks a rising need for scientists to rely on integrative tactics to solve modern scientific problems that can no longer be tackled with expertise in a single discipline, several experts said. At least for colleges that can afford to do so, adjusting to this idea is the first step toward remaining afloat in the rapidly evolving world of scientific research and education especially because, according to reports issued by National Science Board, the United States is “slipping” in its global dominance in scientific research and education.

Indeed, Associate Dean for Science Education William Segraves said, “Interdisciplinarity is happening all over the place here.”

Bears and Bulldogs Expand

Along with the Manhattanville expansion, Columbia began construction last year on the Northwest Science Building — a facility located on West 120th Street and Broadway for collaborative research among various departments, including that of chemistry, biology, engineering, nanoscience and physics. The building is scheduled to open in the fall of 2010.

Meanwhile, for the scientists here at Yale, initiatives that will bridge the sciences abound, said Steven Girvin, the University science and technology deputy provost.

Course offerings combining different academic departments, such as Yale Medical School’s Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program, the graduate program in chemical biology and the undergraduate biomedical engineering major, have diversified in recent years. Moreover, on-campus expansion initiatives, such as the Institute for Nanoscience and Quantum Engineering and research at the Yale Cancer Center, attest to the growing role of integrative science in shaping the activities of research facilities.

Talks are also underway for the creation of a building for a climate institute, which would tackle climate change by drawing from a variety of fields. Faculty members will start writing a formal proposal for creating this institute this semester, geology and geophysics professor Jeffrey Park said.

Park is the co-chair of the environmental studies undergraduate program and director of the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies. Both programs emphasize the overlap between environmental science and geology.

For West Campus, Yale officials said, cross-disciplinary facilities within the 136-acre space may contain research activity from a variety of subjects, including biology, chemistry, environmental science and physics.

“The West Campus represents a marvelous opportunity for Yale to develop brand new science initiatives,” Girvin said. “We hope to see a combination of discipline specific centers co-located in a way that will foster important interdisciplinary communication and research.”

The Rest of the Pack

But Columbia and Yale are not the only Ivies with science expansion on their agendas. Three others within the Ancient Eight — Harvard, The University of Pennsylvania and Princeton — also have plans in the works.

At Harvard, a four-building science complex — which will house the Harvard Stem Cell Institute — will be completed in several years in Boston’s Allston neighborhood, Harvard spokesperson for science initiatives BD Cohen said. Starting later in 2008, Harvard also plans to increase its focus on its interdisciplinary departments, including bioengineering, he said.

To top it off, the school created the Harvard University Science and Engineering Committee tasked with guiding the school “into a new era of collaborative, cross-disciplinary science initiatives,” according to a Jan. 18, 2007, Harvard press release. At the time, the Harvard Corporation started a $50 million fund to help support the committee.

Penn has embarked on a $2 billion initiative to add 1.4 million square feet to campus, primarily for scientific research, as part of the Penn Connects expansion plan. Many multimillion-dollar complexes specifically geared towards cross-disciplinary science research are to built on the premises. Penn Connects started in 2005 and does not yet have an official timetable for completion.

In New Jersey, Princeton plans to build a $450 million complex for a neuroscience institute, along with other facilities, over the next decade.

The Ivies have set a good precedent, Chang said.

“When Harvard redeveloped their undergraduate curriculum, that received national attention. People paid attention and wanted to follow,” he said. “[The Ivies] are leading institutions — people will take notice and people will follow.”

Indeed, other institutions have also started expansion plans of their own. The University of California, San Francisco has recently announced plans at involving interdisciplinary science research.

Resources in place, federal funding flat

But while the infrastructure may be in place for the Ivies to push forward in the sciences, significant barriers remain, Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern said. Several educators said that federal funding for science research in the United States has been on the decline in recent years — a trend that Alpern said may be responsible for the nation’s slipping global rank in the sciences.

“There’s no shortage of resources [among some private higher institutions],” he said. “But the cost of research has to come from the government, which is not happening. Because of that, other countries are catching up.”

In a 2008 report, the National Science Board noted that the federal obligation toward academic research declined between 2004 and 2005 and is expected to see a further decline in 2006 and 2007. The trend represents the first decline in academic research spanning multiple years since 1982.

Girvin said that science research funding has been relatively flat for the past three years, which is having some very concrete results.

“About three years ago, the U.S. stopped being the majority source for articles in Physical Review Letters,” he said. “Europe and Japan now completely dominate the field of elementary particle physics as the U.S. laboratories are being forced to shrink efforts or close down their particle accelerators.”

Girvin added, “The U.S.’s dominance in the sciences is definitely being challenged by Europe and Asia.”

Still, despite these financial setbacks, educators said they see the expansion plans as a positive trend. Many said the conditions are ripe for private spending in the sciences and interdisciplinary initiatives to continue, at least for schools with large enough wallets.

“This is just the way science is going,” Cohen said.

Comments

  • anon

    The difference with Yale's plan is that its facilities are ready right now. The West Campus is larger than MIT's entire campus. This will catapult Yale far ahead of the other institutions in terms of what it is able to do immediately.