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Interdisciplinary research has emerged as a popular way for academics to address real world issues across disciplines. However, university bureaucracy can sometimes be a stumbling block in its path.

At Penn, interdisciplinary work is evident in the prestigious Penn Integrates Knowledge endowed professorships, countless collaborative centers such as the Nano/Bio Interface Center and undergraduate initiatives like the Integrated Studies Program.

“Believe it or not the biggest problem is the logistics of bureaucracy … basically there is a boring and stultifying logic that governs [it],” Philippe Bourgois, a PIK professor in the medical school and the Anthropology Department said. He cited “economic forces” as one of the “silly, really irrelevant roadblocks” to interdisciplinary research.

Bourgois said that “it’s a very tedious thing” for researchers in different schools due to having different regulations and schedules on how research is conducted.

This issue may also be due to the nature of the grants process. When a researcher receives a federally funded grant, the university also receives a percentage of the money, called an “indirect,” which pays for the indirect costs of research, such as facilities and services provided by Penn. This rate, which is negotiated with the federal government every few years, is currently 60 percent of the grant the researcher receives.

The indirect is split between the provost’s office and the dean of the school that the researcher belongs to. The dean ultimately decides how the indirect is split between departments. If a researcher works between two different schools, the indirect can only go to one school.

For Sharon Thompson-Schill, a psychology professor and director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, the process can make interdisciplinary research difficult. “There’s such a structural issue that has to do with money,” she said.

Related: Faculty find faults with ‘Penn Integrates Knowledge’

Additionally, when a professor with collaborators in different schools receives a grant, it is often difficult to figure out a fair way to split the money as well as the credit.

Bourgois said that departments may also be concerned over which department receives the credit for a professor’s interdisciplinary accomplishments.

Currently, administrators are working on streamlining some of the bureaucratic issues. ”There is an initiative to significantly improve the electronic systems that support processes to obtain and carry out research programs. The goal is to reduce the time that faculty spend with these processes so that they can concentrate on research,” Dawn Bonnell, vice provost for Research at Penn, said in an email.

Outside of the logistics of doing interdisciplinary work, the academic community is often wary of it on a disciplinary level. “I think one potential contention that could exist is, do you need to get some firm grounding in some discipline before you embark on interdisciplinary research?” Schill asked.

Several professors emphasized the importance of becoming an expert in a certain field before reaching across fields. Otherwise, according to Bourgois, one risks being a “dilettante across multiple fields.”

Related: Nano/Bio Interface Center gets $11.5 million grant

Still, many see promise in interdisciplinary research.

Lisa Messeri, a visiting scholar and teaching fellow for ISP, found Penn much more encouraging of interdisciplinary research than at her former school, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It was held up as a prize thing,” she said.

Messeri traced today’s wide interest in interdisciplinary research to programs from the 1970s like Women’s Studies, a field that drew in scholars from historical, sociological and literary backgrounds. Today, this interdisciplinary approach remains a hot topic for academia. “Students are more interested in it now than when I was an undergrad,” she said, also pointing out that universities are realizing “there isn’t a notion of disciplinarity in the real world.”

According to Bonnell, the administration is currently focused on creating “new centers that involve at least two and often 4-5 schools” like the Center for Neuroscience and Society, which looks at the ethical, legal and social implications of neuroscience.

More support for interdisciplinary research may be found at Penn in the near future. In the fall semester, President Amy Gutmann affirmed a continued commitment to interdisciplinary research in the Penn Compact 2020, a renewal of her larger goals for the University, stating that such research puts “knowledge into action for the greatest good.”

A previous version of this article stated that the percentage of the indirect which went to the University was 88.8 percent. It is 60 percent.

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