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Historical Arc of Universities

This post is by David K. Park

Even though I’m an engineer with a PhD in political science, I tend to gravitate toward history to anchor my contextual lens. (If fact, if I were pressed to put a methodological stake in the ground, I would say I’m a historical comparative institutional ecologist.) In that regard, it may be helpful to situate this discussion within the broader historical arc of intellectual pursuits at universities. As we know with the birth of universities, we had scholars who embodied so many disciplines such as mathematics, philosophy, religion law, etc into one individual. Then in the 50′s and 60′s we started going into hyper-specialization mode, and it was necessary because we needed to better understand our specific domains. In the 80s and 90s, certain disciplines started to recognize the importance of other disciplines on their work but the tendency was to bring those skills into a single individual. So we produced, by way of e.g., law professors who could do game theory, political scientists who could run sophisticated statistical models, sociologists who could run network analysis, etc.

However, we are now at a juncture where there maybe a self awareness among a generation of scholars that not only do they need to read across disciplinary lines but truly interact with colleagues outside their disciplines to make new insights and discoveries. The recognition seems to be that the grand challenges we face are larger than one individual, one discipline, but not necessarily one institution. Therefore, embedded in this discussion is this narrative of what should or can a university do to enable truly “transdisciplinary” research to help tackle and answer some of the larger intellectual questions as well as pressing grand challenges facing society .

Can we design and implement an institutional framework and mechanism which allows for this type of research? Interestingly, by way of analogy, Acemoglu and Robinson, in Why Nations Fail, do a wonderful job laying out the case for this type of framework for the success of countries, which could readily apply to this discussion as well.

As is often the case, it’s understanding the processes by which we get to the breakthroughs that is more challenging that understanding the breakthrough itself.


  1. Steve Sailer says:

    You had me nodding along up until invoking the authority of Daron Acemoglu, the new, improved Malcolm Gladwell of the 2010s:

    • David says:

      Ouch. Equating Daron with Malcom is bit harsh. I do however appreciate good history.

    • Nathan Goldblum says:

      Acemoglu: 6th most cited economist in the world according to IDEAS, Clark medalist, Academic.
      Gladwell: journalist.

      Equating those two is tantamount to error. Even though Why Nations Fail gives a popular introduction to the thesis, Acemoglu & Robinson have written numerous papers laying out the science beneath.

  2. Rahul says:

    Although there’s the argument that a fair chunk of the “transdisciplinary research” is motivated by funding agency fads favoring such research?

    No doubt collaboration helps some projects but the current status quo might be producing too much of collaboration for collaboration’s sake?

    • David says:

      I cringe a bit when I wrote “transdisciplinary” because it’s one of those over used, and sometimes vacuous terms. It’s a good question of research being exogenously or endogenously driven. I suspect it’s a bit of both sometimes.

      • Rahul says:

        Another distinction is collaboration across fields versus collaboration with other groups to produce some division of labor & specialization within the same broad area.

        e.g. I might invest in a GC-MS and you in high throughput synthesis rigs.

    • Anonymous says:

      This isn’t true. Yes, lip service is paid to interdisciplinary research by Deans, Presidents, and Professors but funding is a different matter. The senior people at funding agencies who sit on these committees are primarily specialists and will tend to award grants to specialist work they can appreciate and understand.

      • Rahul says:

        I’m not saying “multi-disciplinary” is some magic keyword that gets crap a pass. But cetris paribus there’s a huge plus to submitting such proposals in practice, is what I hear.

        Another phenomenon I’ve heard of is EU grants where having a multi-nation team often, in itself, gets you brownie points. Not sure if true.

        In any case, I find it hard to believe that the funding agency committees versus {Deans, Presidents, and Professors} are sets with grossly disjoint thinking.

  3. West says:


    The research universities in the states have undergone significant changes since the 40s. Massive expansion of research groups in middle of the 20th due to an influx of federal and state funding. As government monies dwindles, PIs need to look for new sources of funding. I don’t mean to say that organizations trump intellectual innovation. Just need to have the institutional history before making recommendations about the future.

    • Rahul says:

      Large groups also have the added plus of making accountability harder.

      • Anonymous says:


        Well of course larger groups with many revenue streams are harder to cut off completely than a lone professor and his graduate student if it is producing shoddy work. But that wasn’t my point.

        Expansion meant growth both in the number of groups as well as the existing size. “Schools” of analysis develop around productive centers of research, in part due to financial stability. You get thirty years of work on a core set of problems, maybe solving some. But as coincidence has it, the easy money spigget slows at the same time that cracks in narrow methodologies become apparent. So researchers need to seek out new methods as well as funding streams. To understand how to reward certain research practices within existing institutions, we need to understand how we got here both intellectually as well as administratively.

        I don’t know the developmental history of the social sciences departments so I am generalizing from my understanding of the history of US physics research. So my thoughts may be unhelpful to most of the researchers here doing work in poli-sci, psych and econometrics.

      • West says:

        The previous comment was mine. Just forgot to include my handle.

  4. DrBill says:

    Can we design and implement an institutional framework and mechanism which allows for this type of research?

    Wait, shouldn’t we do an RCT to make sure that “this type of research” is actually productive first? Or are the random gut feelings of academics kind of above RCTs on the pyramid of knowledge?

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