At West Campus, collaboration is key

WEST HAVEN — When Yale purchased the West Campus a year and a half ago, the 1.6 million square-foot complex was hailed as offering an unprecedented opportunity for the University to expand its collaborative research programs.

But these physical plans just scratch the surface of what is a deeper phenomenon: the fundamentally changing terrain of scientific discovery. The West Campus is a physical manifestation of a coalescence between academia and industry — a trend that officials at peer institutions and here at Yale say has been taking academic science across the country by storm over the past decade.

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David Walker
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“We actually believe that having the space — by not organizing the space by traditional academic departments — gives us the chance to conduct pioneering scientific research in an interdisciplinary way,” University President Richard Levin said in an interview. “So many of the current problems require that kind of approach.”

Indeed, the once-clear distinction between scientific research in academia and in industry is quickly fading, at least seven administrators at Yale and other universities said. Modern scientific problems often require integrative tactics and can no longer be tackled with expertise in a single discipline, they said.

“I can certainly tell you that the world is changing,” said Joanna Aizenberg, a biophysics professor at Harvard University. “I see it more and more at Harvard: Collaboration is the way to go.”

The University of Michigan and Harvard are am0ng a group of about half a dozen institutions with plans underway to introduce collaboration into their scientific endeavors on a larger scale. In an acquisition almost identical to that of West Campus, Michigan purchased a 2.1 million square-foot campus from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. for $108 million in December, which the university’s vice president for research, Steven Forrest, said would allow them to have partnerships with the industrial and private sector.

Harvard, meanwhile, is taking a different approach: It is slowly buying up property in the Allston neighborhood across the river from its Cambridge campus, which will allow it to create institutes that will house interdisciplinary projects. (Plans for the development of a scientific complex have been put on temporary hold due to the economic situation.)

Interviews with over two dozen researchers and administrators at Michigan, Harvard and Yale revealed that the current emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration within the sciences is a relatively recent phenomenon.

And with the purchase of West Campus, Yale, too, is taking collaborative scientific research in academia to a new level — or so Michael Donoghue, vice president of West Campus planning and program development, hopes.

“If we do it right in terms of designing programs at West Campus, we can go a long way in illustrating what can be done at the intersections of disciplines,” he said in an interview. “West Campus is the ultimate illustration in how to break down the barriers.”

While today, these barriers are becoming more porous, a decade ago, each scientific department was ideologically distinct and had its own sphere of influence.

Aizenberg, a former researcher at Bell Laboratories, explained that 10 years ago, industry’s focus on collaboration differed from the emphasis academic institutions put on individual breakthroughs. In interviews, half a dozen other researchers interviewed reiterated this distinction.

“Fifteen years ago at universities, intellectual collaboration was talked about as an important process,” James Anderson, who has been an atmospheric chemistry professor at Harvard for over 30 years, said by phone. “The interactions and collaborations were confined to small regions within fields and there was not a lot outside of that.”

All this has shattered in the last decade, he added — largely due the increasing complexity of research questions, which require a multi-perspective solution bringing together diverse, specialized individuals.

The West Campus’s Center for High Throughput Cell Biology, the only research facility currently operating here, exemplifies this approach to multi-disciplinarity. HTCB is “a cross between industry and academia,” as one of the Center’s pioneering researchers, Marie-Aude Guie, put it.

Though Yale already has interdisciplinary groups, such as the Yale Cancer Center, on central campus, they are separate entities and largely geographically separate, School of Medicine dean Robert Alpern said. But the West Campus will bring together many such groups not only in theory but in practice, he said.

Still, beyond a certain point, interdisciplinary collaboration can become counterproductive, three researchers interviewed said.

In particular, some in scientific circles still debate the extent to which researchers should specialize before engaging in collaborative efforts. At present, the researchers said they felt that it would be unwise to sidestep the current departmental set-up entirely.

“The danger is that if you forget the disciplines, you’ll just get a homogenous wash of a bunch of things,” said Hashim Al-Hashimi GRD ’00, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan. “To be interdisciplinary, you first have to be disciplinary.”

He emphasized how important it is for students to take traditional, single-disciplinary classes and specialize in one area. Without a firm grasp of at least one discipline, he said, students cannot possibly benefit from a combination.

Departments, in some ways, are simply more practical. For instance, they facilitate administrative efficiency and bring together groups of like-minded scientists with similar areas of specialization.

“Without some sort of department structure, I think it would be really hard to operate,” said William Klemperer, professor emeritus of physical chemistry at Harvard.

Moreover, interdisciplinarity may not be an effective blueprint for scientists at every point in their careers.

For instance, excessive collaboration among junior faculty could prevent them from establishing independent reputations, said Eric Jacobsen, a professor of chemistry at Harvard.

Alpern agreed that barriers to the ethos of collaboration remain, citing the promotional system’s emphasis on individual research achievement.

But with its five scientific institutes and three core facilities, West Campus’ structure — designed to promote interdisciplinary research while preserving some features of the traditional departmental approach — addresses these concerns, Donoghue said.

To maintain distinctions within the collaborative model, the West Campus’ institutes will balance broad fields of study, such as chemical biology, with traditional specialized departments. The institutes ­will focus on broad fields of study, such as chemical biology, and will execute many of the administrative functions traditionally associated with departments.

Still, while Yale can draw together innovative groups of scientists, constructive collaboration requires an fundamental change in mindset. Donoghue said the feat will be difficult because Yale is an institution with what he called “a long history of boundaries,” requiring both administrative and individual commitment.

“West Campus could become a shining model of how this could be done,” he said of interdisciplinarity. “If we don’t get that right, the rest won’t work well.”

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