A roadmap to success: FSU invests in interdisciplinary research to meet future challenges

Florida State University is increasing interdisciplinary research and teaching as part of the university's strategic plan.
Florida State University is increasing interdisciplinary research and teaching as part of the university's strategic plan.

The biggest problems facing the world often don’t stay nicely within the boundaries of a single academic discipline to be easily understood and solved.

Those problems spread out, affecting many people in different ways. Solutions are imperfect, and progress might be pieced together by experts from many fields.

Those are the sorts of problems that Florida State University researchers are helping to solve with their interdisciplinary research.

One pillar of the university’s strategic plan, launched in 2017, is improving academic and research excellence. To help achieve that goal, FSU is increasing interdisciplinary research and teaching. Funding for research surpassed $250 million in fiscal year 2020, and the university has already exceeded its goal for submitting interdisciplinary contracts and grants proposals.

“Our faculty are doing amazing things and making important contributions,” said Laurel Fulkerson, interim Vice President for Research. “When faculty can combine their expertise with those in other fields, their contributions and insights are multiplied. Interdisciplinary work is critical to solving the ‘wicked problems’ of today and will be even more important to tomorrow’s challenges.”

For example, consider the many challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus poses health problems on an individual and a population level. The pandemic has caused economic and social distress alongside health care issues. Manufacturing and distributing a vaccine requires work from biologists, engineers, businesses and others. It’s a challenge that touches all manner of academic disciplines.

The FSU Office of Research Development saw a complex issue where FSU faculty could make contributions. The pandemic was the subject of a recent “Collaborative Collision,” a regular networking event that brings together people from different fields to work together on new research endeavors.

Faculty connecting with colleagues in other departments who might share research interests doesn’t happen automatically, especially with obligations like conducting research, applying for grants, teaching and fulfilling service obligations taking up so much time. That’s where Collaborative Collision comes in. The events gather researchers from across campus and the community around a single topic. The Office of Research Development has been hosting these events since 2016 and has explored topics such as health, disaster resiliency, big data and more.

“We started Collaborative Collision because we saw that federal agencies were focusing more and more on interdisciplinary efforts,” said Beth Hodges, director of the Office of Research Development. “They realize that the answers to big problems usually aren’t field-specific. The solutions come from attacking the problems from a lot of different angles. That’s why we started these efforts, to help our faculty be better prepared.”

By bringing researchers from different backgrounds together and giving them support to pursue good ideas, Collaborative Collision and other programs act as a catalyst for faculty to pursue external funding in amounts that allow them to make bigger impacts.

Along with programs like Collaborative Collision, Florida State is home to several research centers where faculty from different disciplines work together to investigate complex questions.

The Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR), for example, brings together faculty from across numerous FSU colleges, including the College of Arts & Sciences, the College of Education and the College of Social Work. By creating a space where researchers from multiple disciplines can interact and share ideas — not just with each other, but also with teachers, clinicians, families, community leaders and policymakers — FCRR helps deliver breakthroughs in the ways in which we understand, assess and teach critical reading skills.

“There isn’t one magic bullet that will ensure that every child thrives when it comes to reading, but with diverse voices, minds, and experiences at the table, we can begin to unpack all of the many components that add up to a successful reader in any given context,” said FCRR director Nicole Patton Terry. “There’s simply no way to do that in a vacuum.”

The complicated problems of the future are not going away easily. Florida State faculty are helping to solve those problems and to prepare for whatever comes next.

There is increasing recognition in the federal research agencies and on Capitol Hill that the most pressing problems require an interdisciplinary approach, said Jonathan Nurse, FSU’s director of federal relations.

“Interdisciplinary approaches are viewed as maximizing the talent present among research institutions and generating efficient use of taxpayer dollars,” Nurse said. “From COVID to national security to natural disasters, I think you would be hard-pressed to find a research agency director that wouldn’t say, ‘Yes, in order to address the big issues of the day, we need to pull in all aspects of our operation, as well as look externally to other federal agencies, to get at these big problems.’”

For more information on FSU’s strategic plan, visit strategicplan.fsu.edu.