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Converging on the Answer: A Q&A with Beckham Dossett

convergence research

Society is faced with a plethora of grand challenges. Energy crises, environmental pollution, and health disparities, for starters. Scientists and social scientists must work together to navigate these vast, rough waters. Their unique disciplines must intermingle. Their research must converge.

What is Convergence Research?

In 2016, the National Science Foundation (NSF) introduced convergence research as one of its “10 big ideas for the future.” They defined it under two broad criteria: the research “needs to be driven by a specific and compelling problem” and it should involve “deep integration across disciplines.” Sounds simple enough.

But this ever-sharpening focus on interdisciplinary research exposes a need for practical guidance on how to cross its well-guarded borders. Convergence research requires everyone at the university to travel outside their comfort zones. For faculty in creative disciplines and the basic science researchers who take their cues from agencies like the NSF, finding common ground might seem like a tall order. But the potential to create powerful synergies is great too.

Beckham Dossett, associate dean for research in the McGovern College of the Arts and associate professor of graphic design in the School of Art, discusses how universities can connect their experts to answer calls for collaborative work that address increasingly complex societal problems.

As an administrator and a faculty member, you have a unique perspective on the various rallying cries around interdisciplinary research. Where is the engine of this type of convergence within the university?

I’ve been on a number of committees over the years where the initiative is “let’s talk about interdisciplinary research,” and the energy in the room is great. Then nothing happens. So what’s the incentive to make something happen? The goal is “we need to do this, this is why we’re here.” But “the how” is less clear. If funding agencies are creating opportunities that incentivize this kind of work, then the big question is: who is going to promote the how and what are the things that have to happen to begin to crack that?

It starts within the university administration to set a tone, to reach out to faculty. I can encourage faculty in my college to do more research or suggest that they go do something with someone else, but that incentive is going to be much stronger if it comes from someone above me who can speak authoritatively to the colleges and say to everyone, “let’s try this.”

Whether it’s an artist or a scientist, faculty have a hard time reaching out to each other. There are a lot of institutional barriers that you have to break. We have heard “interdisciplinary” over and over and over. Making connections across the university is difficult because of the demands on faculty to do research. They feel like there’s not a lot of room to move out of the narrow track they’re on to stop and ask, “Is there a question I can engage with another discipline on?” It’s a distraction from what you’re doing.

At UH, our associate vice president for research is making inroads toward this simply by going to the colleges and getting to know them. She’s very interested in creating a space — both conceptual and physical — for faculty to come together and discover each other. Creating that space is important, but that takes time.

The arts, especially graphic design, are collaborative by nature. Is there something the university as a whole can learn from the way you solve problems?

Graphic designers are collaborators by necessity. If we’re not working with other people, we’re not working. We teach our students to work with clients and collaborators and have a conversation. Out of that conversation, the design happens. It comes out of the dialogue.

In the same way, problems are not solved from one point of view or with one skillset. By their nature, they require a lot of different points of view to solve.

When funding agencies or university administrations say interdisciplinary or convergence, do you think the arts are implied in that scope? Is there more work to be done toward clarifying the value proposition for artists as potential research partners?

My feeling is that the arts are a blind spot. Some grants might call for an educational component, and I’ve spoken with artists on other campuses who acknowledge that as a way into these relationships. That is a very narrow slice of what we do, and perhaps not every artist’s preferred way in, but it speaks to artists being able to make ideas accessible.

If an agency asks, “How do you take your research project and make the public understand it? How do you make it relevant to their lives?” Artists understand how to look at information and connect it to people. They will interpret it in a very different way. There’s value in that interpretation.

But if artists are only seen as making things beautiful, we run the risk of becoming service providers. The end goal is having artists come in from the outset. We might be assuming the scientists are initiating these questions. What if an artist or someone from the humanities initiated the question?

So, creating equitable partnerships?

Absolutely.

We can do a lot with a little, whereas for basic science there is a huge amount of infrastructure required and the payout is potentially very high, but rare. The expectations, budgets and requirements are so disparate. We’re almost speaking different languages.

Artists and scientists are both great observers. They share a curious nature. In academia, our economy values one more than the other. But if you can put that aside, I think they are just two groups of people that don’t know how to come together, typically.

Are there successful models out there for this type of work?

Start with the students.

We’ve had success bringing colleges together with student projects. What we see there is that students from different disciplines don’t know how to talk to each other at first. They’re suspicious of each other because one group has their process and understanding of the project and another group has theirs. The work is trying to get them to talk about the project together. That is a lot to coordinate, but it’s a microcosm of faculty engagement.

And students are already somewhat interdisciplinary, they get around campus and take classes with other people. By creating a force, there is a way to bring faculty together.

Along with these calls to converge, we hear criticism of hyperspecialization in academia. Do you envision it becoming easier or harder to break down the walls between fields in the years to come?

Based on my experience with the Art History M.A. program in the School of Art and the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in Hispanic Studies, there’s potential for that to be more common. Putting more faculty members with interdisciplinary training out into the world — generationally speaking — is going to become more important. My colleagues are seeing their students looking for faculty jobs and what’s being demanded of them is that they’re not specialists, that they interweave Art History with Hispanic Studies with Film Studies and so on.

That’s within the humanities. The art world cliché is the artist in his or her studio alone. But artists are collaborative. They engage with many groups including community activists, urban planners and technologists.

Any advice for faculty upon venturing out of their disciplinary comfort zones?

It’s important to be vulnerable, acknowledging what you don’t know. There’s empathy; listening to another person’s point of view. You may not agree with them, but you have to appreciate what they’re saying.

What we tell design students is: you help the client understand what they really need. We teach them how to listen, how to have conversations and be open to the answers. Learning how to ask good questions comes from listening.

Think of Networking as a Super Power

Yannis Yortsos, dean of engineering at University of Southern California, puts some immediate context around convergence in his talk “The Promise and Challenges of Convergence Research.” He explains that the current pace of technological change breathes urgency into interdisciplinary initiatives. While our lives play out linearly, technology is growing exponentially. At any given moment, the amount we don’t know keeps expanding.

However, in that widening gap there are opportunities to solve important problems. Developing a facility for collaboration and sharing knowledge may help faculty overcome blind spots. Designers know that conversation is a discipline all its own, but one that acts as a doorway into all others.

Convergence requires faculty to start out with an understanding of both the stakes of societal challenges — the why — and the value of our collective expertise — the what. Finding “the how” may be as subtle as posing the right question to the right people.

Cartoon image of Tim Holt

About Tim Holt

As digital media manager for the UH Division of Research, I’m here to make sure you enjoy your experience on the Big Idea blog. When you watch our video stories, I’ll be the one behind the camera.

https://research.uh.edu/the-big-idea/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Artboard-2-copy-2@4x.png

About Tim Holt

As digital media manager for the UH Division of Research, I’m here to make sure you enjoy your experience on the Big Idea blog. When you watch our video stories, I’ll be the one behind the camera.