Consolidate Interdisciplinary Research; Propel
President, Fudan University
On the occasion of last year’s annual meeting of APPU presidents (Association
of Pan-Pacific Universities), Prof. M.C. Piper, president of Canada’s University of
British Columbia, observed that we can summarize the development traits of higher
education world-wide with three I’s: Internationalization, Informationalization, and
Interdisciplinary research. Her perception was ardently shared by many that were
Guided by China’s strategy: ‘Technology and Education as the Drive for
Development’, China’s higher education has progressed in leaps and bounds. All
higher education institutions analyze their won status in order to grasp auspicious
opportunities for progress and expansion. Among sundry issues, consensus is reached
that disciplinary construction ought to be our priority. Yet the problem is how do we
propel it? Based on the tendency of technical-scientific development, combined with
our present capacity, we believe that the key to promote disciplinary construction
rests on the consolidation of interdisciplinary exchange.
Interdisciplinary Exchange: Critical Tendency of Technical-Scientific
In English, “interdisciplinary’ connotes trans-disciplines and among-disciplines.
Its terrain covers subjects which, though different in nature, converge through
interaction and mutual influence. The term ‘interdisciplinary’ first appeared in the
1920s and 30s; and it was in 1937 when the word first made its way into Webster’s
Dictionary of the English Language and the Supplement to the Oxford English
Prior to its late document appearance, human’s ‘interdisciplinary’ activity had
been in existence for a long time. If we look back to the history of science, a process
of synthesizing–dividing-synthesizing is visible. Before, due to low productivity,
science was an all-embracing, synthetic subject: Natural Philosophy. At that era,
natural philosophers studied all aspects of the universe, roaming in field without
academic demarcation. For instance, Aristotle, of ancient Greece, was such an
encyclopedic scholar who examined the principles of the natural world in aspects of
astronomy, chemistry, and biology. He was as much a philosopher, logician, aesthete,
as a natural scientist. The Chinese scientist of Song Dynasty Shen Gua also
exemplified a rounded approach of this kind. Shen Gua’s capacious Reflections
Beside River Meng touches on mathematics, calendar astronomy, geography,
climatology, physics, chemistry, metallurgy, weaponry, hydrography, architecture,
zoology, botany, and medicine.
Modern science began with Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of Celestial
Bodies, published in 1543. From then on, science entered an epoch of systematic,
comprehensive development. As a result, one discipline after another sailed forth
independently. Galileo innovated science study by combining experimental and
mathematical methodologies. This new approach led to the systematic dividing of
natural sciences into mechanics, physics, chemistry, and so on. As science split into
individual subjects, inter-connected areas unobtrusively called for attention. In
mathematics, Descartes and Fermat associated shapes with algebra, in this way
analytic geometry was born (ca. 1637). German chemist Richter applied mathematics
to chemical research, giving chemistry a quantitative approach and thereby
establishing stoichiometry (1791). In mid-18th century, Russian scientist Lomonosov
incorporated chemical and physical research methods and delivered the concept of
physical chemistry. The term ‘bio-chemistry’ was first brought forth by German
scientist Hoppe-Seyler and eventually became an independent subject. Since 1940s,
with the increase of individual subjects and disciplinary intersections,
interdisciplinary exchange has undergone a sweeping transformation, crossing
boundaries and taking on multiple dimensions.
The history of science has manifested that important break-through,
innovation, and the emergence of new subjects all have to do with cross-disciplinary
intersection and bilateral permeation. Many significant theories and technological
inventions are products of interdisciplinary exchange. In the course of research,
intricate theoretical inquires which might have remained unsolved within the bounds
of specific fields are very likely to be resolved under the cooperative, interdisciplinary
approach. The winning record of the Nobel Prize for natural sciences in the past
hundred years attests to such a trend.
Take the invention of power transistor. In the later half of 1945, Bell Lab set
up a research term on solid-state physics headed by Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain.
They incorporated different expertise and specialization along with many other
physicists, chemists and electronic engineers. Their effort was rewarded with the
invention of triode, and the 1956 Nobel Prize for Physics.
Another example is the formulation of BCS theory. Bardeen (specialized in
solid-state physics) worked with Cooper (specialized in quantum field theory) and
Schrieffer (specialized in mathematical physics) and they came up with the theory of
superconductivity. The 1972 Nobel Prize of Physics was awarded to them to
commemorate their collaboration. For Bardeen, this was his second Nobel trophy.
The discovery of the duplex DNA is another example attesting the essentiality
of interdisciplinary research. The British physicist Crick and the American biologist
Watson teamed up to investigate the structure of DNA. Their epochal contribution
won them the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine.
Survey has shown that interdisciplinary or collaborative research enjoys an
increasing likelihood of winning the Nobel Prize. During the first 25 years after the
set-up of the Nobel Prize, interdisciplinary or collaborative researchers took up 41%
of the overall winning head-counts. This ratio rose to 65% during the second 25 years,
and 79% in the third 25-year-period. It is foreseeable that in the 21st century--a time
that is to witness the development of scientific technology in strides--interdisciplinary
interaction must be further encouraged to invigorate the evolution and break-through
of all disciplines.
Secondly, the consolidation of interdisciplinary junctions also serves to better
resolve the economic and social-developmental problems we now encounter. History
has more than once shown that social needs often initiate the interaction, integration,
and development of various academic subjects. During World Wall II, the progress in
nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry was strongly urged and made under the need
for nuclear weaponry. Now, international treaties, which ban nuclear-testing,
introduce disciplines and technologies--such as high-performance parallel computing,
high pressure physics, high temperature physics, and ionic physics, etc., that are
related to the three-dimensional simulation of nuclear explosion. Many current issues
necessitate the bringing together of natural sciences and social, liberal sciences. To
tackle problems like population, resources, environment, and crisis-management, we
must combine knowledge and technology as an innovative synthetic whole.
Controversial, ethical problems brought about by current medical development, such
as genetic engineering, cloning, in-vitro fertilization, organ transplant, and euthanasia,
require the assistance and collaboration of social-liberal sciences like sociology,
ethics, education and law.
At the same time, Fudan’s advantages as a comprehensive university is further
made evident by exploring its interdisciplinary capacity. As a comprehensive
university, Fudan commands an academic domain ranging from liberal arts, social
sciences, management, finance and economics, natural sciences, technology, life
science and medicine. We offer about 90 doctorate programs and 150 Master
programs. We greatly benefit from the recent nation-wide re-structuring of higher
education institution, in which course we merged with the previous Shanghai Medical
University. Since a comprehensive university offers Fudan an invaluable pre-requisite
for promoting interdisciplinary study and research, it is essential that we make full
use of this advantage.
Adopt Active Strategies to Consolidate Interdisciplinary Exchange
To encourage progress in interdisciplinary exchange, many issues need to be
treated with care. We need to form a consensus on educational principles, forge a
tolerant and stimulating academic aura, and formulate relevant technical policies. We
must renovate our structure and deepen education reform. The strategies we have
employed during our “Three-Year-Action-Plan’ include the following:
I. We use ‘academic salon’ to create an environment for interdisciplinary exchange.
Based on state goals and local needs, we organized ‘academic salons’ and
invited participants from all departments to discuss selected topics. Each salon was
hosted by a number of professors. In each salon occasion there was one administrant
from the university’s Science & Technology Administration Office, whose
responsibility was to inform those present of the needs of the state and society,
orienting these academic specialists to one question: What can we do for our country
and society? How? Through mutual brainstorming: cross-disciplinary insights were
then transformed into project proposals. Many important, interdisciplinary projects
were conceived, crossing the demarcation of subjects and teams. Consequently, these
projects necessitate the sharing of equipment and research resources. Take for
instance the Modern Agricultural Technology Salon. By bringing together experts of
different fields for frequent exchange and discussion, we have proposed, and been
favorably approved by the Ministry of Science and Technology, to research on issues
of genetic diversity and innovative system of contemporary agriculture.
Neuro-Science Salon, incorporating talents both in and outside Fudan, brought forth
to NSFC research proposals such as ‘Information Analysis and Integration in the
Visual System’, to be conducted during the 10th five-year plan period. Material
Science Salon combined subjects of physics, chemistry, and material science, and
invited many renowned scholars, researchers and scientists to give talks at Fudan,
thus strengthened Fudan’s collaboration with other institutions. As a result, a
remarkable research team has been formed to include distinguished young scientists
from Fudan University and the Institutes of Physics and Metallic Science of the
Chinese Academy of Sciences. Their proposal on lower-dimensional magnetic
material research has won enthusiastic response. In view of the efficiency of these
salons, teachers and students at Fudan have also voluntarily organized a series of
discussions such as Bio-X, Environmental Conservation, Developing the Big West,
and so on. It is worth mentioning that by now the Bio-X salon has proceeded to the
16th seminar. Salon seminars, organized voluntarily by our staff and students, serve as
a potent mean to encourage interdisciplinary exchange.
II. Research projects as conveyors of increasing investment on interdisciplinary study.
During our Three-Year-Action-Plan phase we allocated specific funds for
inter-disciplinary projects and set up specialist-teams to extract projects that explore
the ultra-advanced, cross-disciplinary issues. Through investing on these projects we
facilitate the intersection, permeation, and collaboration among individual subjects.
Up to now, our projects, both already funded and forthcoming, include:
*Bio-X: The core of this interdisciplinary field is life science. Projects
selected to proceed included research on neuro-science, protein synthesis, and human
main and collateral channels.
*Nano-X: The field is based on nanotechnology and its related scientific
branches. Focuses are put on nano-electronics, nano-pharmacology, nano-material,
and the chemical and physical nature of nano-structures.
*Med-X: This field investigates the intersecting dimension between medicine
and other subjects. Funding on this particular sphere was ascertained soon after Fudan
merged with the then Shanghai Medical University; its purpose is to make full use of
the academic resources of the new Fudan University. Specialists suggest that funding
priorities be given to projects dealing research on post genome, genomic constitution,
and genetic vaccination, etc.. Emphasis is also given to the technical application of
disease-associated research, such as the invention and study on genetic medicine and
target medicine. Bio-medical engineering is also an important task that encompasses
topics like medical information processing, innovative medical material, nil-or
minute-incision surgery technique, and relevant socio-medical issues.
*IT-X: This sphere surrounds information science and extends to other
subjects. Its establishment takes into account the permeation of IT in all walks of life
and its enduring impact on social change. At the same time, the development of IT
has also paved the way for extensive research on material science, chemistry, physics,
and other subjects.
*Economics-X: Impending issues relevant to economic globalization and
China’s entry into WTO are not confined to economics only. To explore the
correlation among these intertwined issues, we need to combine research on WTO
with politics, scientific technology, education, China’s law and policies in effect, and
*Synchrotron-X: This field is the cross-bred application of Shanghai
Synchrotron Project. It incorporates Fudan’s strength in surface physics, material
structure, electrochemistry, environment science, and bio-physics. All pre-research
preparation and associated issues are already in full swing, and we are aiming to
achieve research-fruition of the most advanced nature once this project (that is: the
third generation synchrotron radiation equipment) is put into force in 2004.
III. Set up interdisciplinary research centers to integrate the structures of teaching and
research to facilitate exchange among different subjects.
We support the establishment of new interdisciplinary research centers, which
have in general titular, or semi-titular, existence. Very few full-time researchers are
attached to these centers: yet many specialists from various disciplines are employed
here on a part time basis. This fluid personnel structure ensures the introduction of
interdisciplinary projects and prevents the running mechanism from slackening. Such
centers recently set up are: E-Commerce Research Center, Neuro-Science Research
Center, Morgan-Tan Life Science Research Center, Nano-Science Research Center,
Synchrotron Research Center, Numeric-Medical Research Center, and Venture
Capital Research Center.
A School of Finance has also been set up at Fudan. To meet the development
needs of China’s financial industry, we prioritize financial subjects, decisively
integrating all interconnected subjects in the fields of finance, management, IT, and
financial mathematics to form this School of Finance. At the same time we are
actively attracting research expertise from abroad in the hope of producing
break-through in the sphere of finance.
Integrating research resources of countries and regions, we set up a School of
International Research. Grounded on the base of Fudan’s expertise in politics,
economics, culture and history, international and regional research centers of the USA,
Japan, the EU, South Korea, Russia, Eastern Europe and Latin America have long
existed as separate institutions. This time, by employing a semi-titular structure, we
set up the School of International Research to consolidate our previously scattered
strength in this field. By doing so we concentrate on and deepen the interconnection
between various disciplines. Our goal is to generate scholarly research of world-wide
recognition, to nourish specialists abreast with intricate international issues, and to
serve as an advisory think-tank to the State and society.
The School of Information Science and Technology is established on the
basis of microelectronics, optical science, and information technology. In view of the
rapid development of IT in the new century, Fudan established the School of
Information Science and Technology. Taking account of the emergence of optical
communication and optical devices in IT development, we mobilized, from Physics
department, part of the force of optical science, a State-Key subject, and combined it
with computer science, electronic engineering, and communication engineering. By
forming this new school we intend to infuse vigor into existing disciplines and thus
initiate further break-through in information science and technology.
VI. Intensify systems of administration to create a working environment for
The interconnection of disciplines, in some sense, means the integration of
teams and the overlapping of staff. It inevitably necessitates the reform of the existing
personnel system. In our conception, the pattern of our future teaching team should
consist of some tenure professorship and a great number of mobile personnel which
include contracted professorship, visiting scholarship, post doctorates, and triple
assistantship (assistant teacher, assistant researcher and assistant manager). Such a
fluid operation system of this magnitude apparently benefits interdisciplinary
exchange. Therefore we plan to exert pilot studies in some departments by
compressing their fixed teaching team, and with the budget saved in this way we
invite more visiting scholars.
Secondly, we will keep introducing to Fudan new talents and experts. During
our Three-Year-Action-Plan phase we devised the Introductory Plan of Outstanding
Experts and the Fudan University Professorship Designation Plan. After one year’s
practice, we have introduced to Fudan more than 50 scholars and researchers from
abroad and effectively improved disciplinary structures and their associated
ramifications. Take for instance our Bio-Diversity Laboratory. This
recently-established lab is growing so vigorously that our Education Ministry selects
it as a Ministry-Approved Key laboratory. It has already won over some crucial
projects of the 973 and 863 programs, and published several articles on top level
journals such as Science. These achievements ought to be attributed to the
introduction of interdisciplinary exchange and new bloods.
We should intensify the system of post-doctorate as the foundation of
interdisciplinary exchange. It is our resolution to quicken all necessary steps in the
hope that within a couple of years the number of post-doctorates in Fudan should be
doubled. Interdisciplinary research will greatly benefit from post-doctorate program,
stimulating research condition, its mutual selection mechanism, and its broad-mined
academic milieu. Post-doctorate system will become the nursery for future talents and
phenomenal research findings.
We also call for an urgent reform on teacher management patterns. For
example, staff who teaches optical science is scattered in Physics Department and
School of Information Science and Technology. Some of them are engaged in
fundamental research as well as application exploration, combining theory and
practice. Accordingly we ought to renovate our current teacher management patterns
so that teachers like these can be members of both departments/schools.
Furthermore, reform of the nurturing pattern of talents shall be pressed further
to facilitate interdisciplinary exchange. In this regard, our recent principle is to focus
on the width of caliber, the solidity of foundation, on capability and innovation.
Reform must be augmented to fully actualize the credit system, thereby to excite
student’s learning motivation and to facilitate interdisciplinary exchange.
In the aspect of graduate training, in order to cultivate all-round talents we
need to look into the interconnection between, and permeation of, different subjects.
For example, we may select gifted undergraduates from biology department and train
them in information science at the graduate level, so that they will easily adapt to the
teaching and research on bio-information science. Select undergraduates of computer
science and train them in linguistics, then we have accomplished minds to further
advance the development of modern applied linguistics. Likewise, students from arts,
sciences and engineering can receive MBA, MPA and JM training in Master and
doctoral levels to broaden their range of learning. In order to nurture sophisticated
talents of interdisciplinary expertise, we ought to increase the scope of reform on
issues of graduate admission and training, and release more admission autonomy to
higher education institution and graduate advisors. Last year our Education Ministry
approved that distinguished professors and members of the Chinese Academy of
Sciences and Academy of Engineering in Fudan are given full decision-making
autonomy in the matter of graduate admission, thereby paving paths for
interdisciplinary research. Such a reform, warmly-received, is an important step in the
cultivation of exceptional talents.
Because interdisciplinary research in education is a newly-discovered terrain,
there is still a lot more for us to further understand and put into practice. The
development of interdisciplinary research and education--what should it be like and
what would its patterns be--awaits our untiring exploration. The expansion of
contemporary science, education, economics, cultural and social development rests on
interdisciplinary research and education. In this regard, Fudan is more than happy to
work with brother universities, with relevant research institutions and with our society.
We are convinced that interdisciplinary research and education will soon benefit from
an integral, expansive reform.