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Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Building Bridges in the Brain, Behavioral, and Clinical Sciences; Pellmar TC, Eisenberg L, editors. Bridging Disciplines in the Brain, Behavioral, and Clinical Sciences. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2000.

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Bridging Disciplines in the Brain, Behavioral, and Clinical Sciences.

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4Interdisciplinary Training Programs

The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change.

Carl Rogers

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.

Helen Keller

The goal of scientific training is to provide the skills necessary to ask questions and seek answers to them. Science can move rapidly. Researchers have to be able to maintain a broad base of knowledge in a single discipline and be willing to change direction and pursue advances in other disciplines through collaboration or further training. Research training does not stop when a degree is obtained or a postdoctoral fellowship is over. Throughout a career a scientist continues to learn. For interdisciplinary training, the challenges are greater because the scope is wider. Formal mechanisms can provide opportunities to learn in new disciplines.

This chapter explores a variety of mechanisms for training and retraining at different career stages. It is not a comprehensive review, but, rather, a sampling to provide an overview of the possibilities. Many of the approaches described here have already been applied to interdisciplinary efforts. Others could easily be adapted to facilitate interdisciplinary training. To encourage interdisciplinary research, the available mechanisms need to be expanded and enhanced. In reviewing the programs, the committee found that outcome data were sparse. Each training program provides information on the successes of its trainees in grant renewal applications, but a more general assessment of the effectiveness of funding mechanisms was usually absent. Because evidence on the relative merits of various programs was unavailable, the committee members used their professional experience to judge what was likely to be effective in promoting future interdisciplinary research. The problem of assessing outcomes of training programs is addressed further in chapter 5.


Undergraduate education lays the foundation on which all future education is built. Some scientists have expressed a need to broaden the scientific base at the undergraduate level in order to encourage interdisciplinary research.63,79 Traditional majors, focused in a single department, have not encouraged or rewarded interdisciplinary work. The virtue of the traditional approach of requiring narrow expertise is that students begin to feel a sense of mastery and develop a professional identity. However, neither the expertise nor the professional identity is suited for rapid changes in the life sciences. For instance, an undergraduate who majors in molecular biology without exposure to systems physiology might be unprepared to envision many kinds of clinical applications.

An alternative is the interdisciplinary undergraduate major, which requires coursework in several traditional departments but still requires expertise in a specific topic. A major in neuroscience, already a popular choice at many colleges, provides an interdisciplinary approach to the complex problem of understanding brain function. Typically, it requires a background in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, but it includes specific courses in molecular, cellular, systems, and behavioral neuroscience with instructors in the departments of psychology, biology, and anthropology. A required thesis based on original research in one field of neuroscience ensures that students will develop proficiency in at least one field. Several excellent colleges (for example, Brown, Emory, and Harvard universities) have implemented such programs. The popularity of the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology Program at Emory University, for example, is demonstrated by the doubling in the number of students each year the last 3 years (T. Insel, personal communication).


When a student continues into graduate school, the educational focus is usually on learning a field of science in depth and developing the research tools necessary to become an independent investigator. In the past, it was rare for a predoctoral student to be exposed to multiple disciplines. As a postdoctoral fellow, the emphasis is on further development of research skills, training in new techniques, and preparation for a research career. As postdoctoral fellows, trainees are commonly encouraged to broaden their horizons by pursuing research experience in fields that differ from the foci of their dissertations. Formal interdisciplinary training at this stage is more likely, but still not the norm.

There are now a multitude of interdisciplinary predoctoral and postdoctoral programs. The committee examined over 100 training programs and the variety of mechanisms they use to promote interdisciplinary research. The programs were identified as interdisciplinary by the funding agency, the committee, Institute of Medicine staff, or themselves. A goal of many of the programs was to provide trainees with a broad perspective in a particular problem, such as emotion, sleep, aging, or affective disorders. Most strove to provide trainees with grounding in a particular discipline while encouraging interdisciplinary interactions. Some of the training programs covered both predoctoral students and postdoctoral fellows. Others focused primarily on one or the other. Because the goals for each are different, they are considered separately below.

Interdisciplinary Training Mechanisms for Predoctoral Students

Most doctoral programs begin with coursework that builds on the undergraduate degree, expanding each trainee's knowledge in fields relevant to the scientific focus and filling in gaps. Nearly all training programs provide trainees with the substantive knowledge and skills necessary to do research. The challenge faced by interdisciplinary programs is to provide a broader, more diverse experience. The goals, in addition to teaching the substance of a field or fields, are to provide the skills necessary to understand other disciplines, and to communicate with those outside one's own field. Students need to learn how to frame research questions and present hypotheses that extend beyond their primary expertise. They need to recognize the contributions that other disciplines can make to their research questions. As suggested by a National Academy committee, graduate students need to acquire a greater versatility by obtaining breadth in their scientific education, by learning to work in interdependent teams, and by developing communication skills with those outside their field.22

To accomplish those goals, the interdisciplinary graduate programs that the committee reviewed (Appendix C) used a variety of approaches, from didactic training to laboratory rotations and networking. Formal coursework is often used to introduce trainees to a broad, multidisciplinary field. Program requirements can include a number of courses that span multiple disciplines but are related to the focus of the program. In addition, many programs offer courses in which the faculty lecture on their fields of expertise and describe current investigations in these fields. Other programs use seminar series to expose students to multiple research topics. And, many training programs attempt to provide students with an overview of the diverse methodological approaches available to address relevant research questions, using formal courses and other processes.

Journal clubs are often used to supplement didactic training. In these forums, students learn to think critically about the scientific literature in their own and related disciplines. Some journal clubs encompass more than reviewing a single journal article by encouraging faculty or student presentations that form the basis of discussion. In some programs, the journal clubs meet in an informal atmosphere, such as at a home in the evening. The environment is intended to facilitate discussion and encourage interaction.

A key component of any training program is the laboratory research effort. Many graduate programs require laboratory rotations in the first couple of years of training. These are designed to expose students to a range of faculty, techniques, and experimental approaches. In many cases, students are offered opportunities to experience quite different aspects of the biomedical and behavioral sciences. Interdisciplinary programs often encourage mentorships of more than one sponsor to ensure input from at least two perspectives. Laboratory meetings are a common component of the educational experience. Some programs formally require attendance at laboratory meetings; some require attendance at meetings in more than one laboratory so that students will continue their exposure to the research questions and methods of more than one discipline.

The research skills learned by working in the laboratory are sometimes supplemented by formal coursework. As required by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), all programs provide some formal training in the responsible conduct of research. In addition, some of the programs reviewed offer training in other career skills, such as preparing grant applications, teaching, writing manuscripts, and reviewing the literature. Research seminar presentations are used by many programs to improve trainees' communication skills. In one program, students are required to prepare a journal article for formal presentation to the other students and faculty. In another, trainees are asked to present a research plan for group discussion. Those approaches not only provide an opportunity to obtain comments on their writing and thinking, but also require them to consider the opportunities and limitations of other approaches. The Research Survival Skills Seminar at the University of Pittsburgh exemplifies some of those approaches.93 In the course of the seminar, students prepare and present a research proposal that is then critiqued by the other students. Through such peer review, the trainees learn firsthand how the system works. Just as important, perhaps, they are exposed to a rigorous evaluation of a wide array of experimental methods.

A goal of many of the interdisciplinary programs reviewed is to provide students with a forum in which to interact with experts in relevant fields. Several mechanisms were used to achieve that goal, such as summer courses, symposia, and off-site meetings. In the programs reviewed, the duration of those types of meetings ranges from a single day to several weeks. Common features include presentations by the trainees, presentations by experts from outside the faculty, and scheduling of time for trainees and experts to interact. The gatherings are generally intended to encourage bonding of students with each other and the faculty and to provide students with a network of experts that includes both their contemporaries and more senior scientists (see Box 4-1); this network is expected to provide a resource for interaction, discussion, and collaboration throughout the trainee's lifetime.

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BOX 4-1

Predoctoral Training Consortium in Affective Science, San Francisco Bay Area. The Predoctoral Training Consortium in Affective Science in the San Francisco Bay Area aims to broaden the disciplinary training of predoctoral students while providing exposure (more...)

Interdisciplinary Training Mechanisms for Postdoctoral Fellows

In the 1920s, the Rockefeller Foundation established a fellowship in physical sciences for people who had just completed their doctoral training.4 These early postdoctoral training fellowships recognized that the field of physics had become too complex for a student to prepare for a research career adequately with only graduate school training. The postdoctoral training mechanism has greatly expanded since then. Postdoctoral fellows are developing both technical and professional skills.4,71 Interdisciplinary training at this point might focus less on didactic training and more on conducting collaborative research, establishing networks, exploring concepts and approaches of other disciplines, and developing skills in interacting and communicating with people in other fields. Many of the same mechanisms described for graduate students to those ends would also benefit postdoctoral fellows.

The committee heard from several program directors that postdoctoral fellows are the glue that holds interdisciplinary efforts together. They are the ones with the time to pursue collaborative research—to bring two or more laboratories together in a research project. Whether projects are initiated by the trainees, or by mentors, all benefit. Trainees obtain experience with multiple perspectives or approaches. By virtue of mentoring trainees who are crossing laboratories, mentors are exposed to and learn about other disciplines. New interests and new insights provide motivation to continue interdisciplinary interaction.

Funding Mechanisms for Predoctoral and Postdoctoral Fellows

Investigator Awards

Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are often supported on an investigator's grant, whether it is an R01, a P01, or another mechanism (see Appendix D for a table of mechanisms). Training comes primarily with doing—a hands-on effort. If two laboratories are collaborating, it is often the postdoctoral fellow who provides the vector for the interaction. The research-intensive effort can present an excellent opportunity to integrate the efforts of two or more laboratories.


Some fellowships are awarded directly to individual applicants. If enrolled in a doctoral program (F31) or in an MD/PhD program (F30) or as a graduate of a doctoral program (F32), a trainee can apply individually for a National Research Service Award (NRSA).53 These fellowships provide a stipend for a trainee, tuition remission, and a small sum for miscellaneous expenses. Because trainees are self-supported through the fellowships, it is their prerogative whether to participate in available ancillary training programs.

Fellowships for postdoctoral fellows, but not for predoctoral students, carry a payback provision. This obligation is incurred only during the first year of training and can be met by a year of research or teaching or a second year of training. Fellowships, unlike grant support, do not provide employee fringe benefits. Consequently, some used to consider these awards less desirable. Until just recently, the fellowships provided health insurance only for the fellows, not for their families. In the government's fiscal year 2000, NIH changed this to provide NRSA fellows with health insurance coverage for families.59

The fellowships, like investigator-funded awards, can be used to support interdisciplinary efforts. A fellow working with a mentor who spans disciplines can be trained across disciplines. Alternatively, multiple mentors can provide interdisciplinary training. In one example reviewed by the committee, the postdoctoral fellow was sponsored by two scientists at two separate, but close, institutions. One mentor used animal models to study the development of a conditioned reflex in the rat; the other focused on the ontogeny of learning in human infants. With guidance from both, the postdoctoral fellow developed a program to look at conditioned reflexes in the two systems and learned to translate the animal findings to human issues.

Institutional Awards

Some training grants for predoctoral students and postdoctoral fellows are awarded to institutions. NIH uses the NRSA Institutional Training Grant (T32) mechanism; NSF uses the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) mechanism specifically to support interdisciplinary efforts. These awards are oriented toward providing training activities for a cohort of students on a regular basis. In addition to training students, institutional programs enrich institutions and provide a framework for research.

NIH T32 Awards. The institutional NRSA (T32) is widely used to support both predoctoral and postdoctoral training (see Box 4-2). This mechanism provides awards in all areas of research training that fall within the NIH mission. Emphasis is placed on the research training of physicians, and special consideration is given to MDs who agree to pursue at least 2 consecutive years of training in biomedical or behavioral research.53 The award requires a strong research program in the proposed field of training, evidence of institutional commitment, a minority recruitment plan, and training in the responsible conduct of research.

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BOX 4-2

Interdisciplinary Research Training Program on Aging, University of Iowa. An NRSA from the National Institute on Aging was awarded to the University of Iowa in 1991 to establish this training program that currently supports eight predoctoral and eight (more...)

To address topics of particular interest, NIH puts out program announcements. These are expected to increase training and hence promote future research efforts in the specified area. One such program is the NIH-wide initiative that called for multidisciplinary training on sleep research: “Innovative, multidisciplinary and collaborative training programs with interactive training provided by investigators from different disciplines and with complementary skills are strongly encouraged.”52 Another example is a recent announcement from the National Institute of Mental Health to encourage translational research through postdoctoral training in intervention trials.43 These T32s are intended to increase the number of clinical investigators interested in the treatment, rehabilitation, and prevention of severe mental disorders. To achieve that goal, the announcement requires a minimal commitment of 2 years from the trainees, a focus on training in multisite trials and community health, and training in statistics, bioethics, epidemiology, experimental therapeutics, data interpretation, and other specified fields.

The T32 award provides primarily stipends for the trainees. As with the fellowships, some tuition is also covered. Like fellowships, the institutional NRSA does not pay fringe benefits and requires a payback provision for the first 12 months of the award to postdoctoral fellows. Funding is limited to 5 years at the predoctoral level and 3 years at the postdoctoral level. However, justified extensions are available. Among the specified grounds for an extension is the additional training time required by clinicians in postdoctoral programs or people in combined MD/PhD programs.53 One major drawback of these training grants is that the indirect costs for facilities and administrative expenses are limited to 8% of the total direct costs. And, they do not cover the direct costs associated with administration of the program.

Curtis et al.11 recently analyzed the costs and benefits of an NRSA program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that provides doctoral training in public health for clinicians. Taking into account both clinical care and academic activities, the authors calculated that the program imposed a net financial burden on the departments. Although they recognize the nonfinancial benefits of having trainees, Curtis et al. noted that additional administrative funds for NRSA faculty would relieve some of the budgetary pressures.

Interdisciplinary efforts cost more to administer than single disciplinary programs. Coordination efforts are greater, requiring additional investigator and staff time to organize meetings, integrate administrative input from multiple units, prepare multiple proposals and reports, and so on. Furthermore, telephone, travel, and other costs are greater. The motivation of universities, departments, and faculties to participate in such programs might be limited because of their financial burdens. Consequently, the committee expressed concern about the ability to provide the best of interdisciplinary programs where administrative and support staffs are inadequate.

IGERT Awards. In 1998, NSF initiated the agency-wide IGERT Program specifically to encourage interdisciplinary training of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.67 The program is based on the premise that careers of the future will require multidisciplinary backgrounds. Consequently, IGERT awards require that several disciplines come together to address a defined multidisciplinary research theme. The projects are expected to offer training through exposure to research that spans disciplines, development of communication and teamwork skills, and training experiences relevant to both academic and nonacademic (industry and government) careers. The projects are expected to focus on predoctoral training. However, training of postdoctoral fellows, undergraduates, or master's students can be incorporated if it adds value to the IGERT program. A plan for tracking the achievements of the IGERT program that may include an assessment of the effectiveness of the “multidisciplinary enterprise” is required by NSF.

An IGERT award is for up to $500,000 per year for up to 5 years. The dollar limit includes both direct and indirect costs. Another $200,000 is available during the first year for necessary equipment or research materials to support the training program. Because NSF recognizes that IGERT projects are likely to require substantial administrative support, funds can be used for program administration. The funds are expected to cover the expenses associated with recruitment of students, development of courses and other training activities, and program evaluation. No faculty research or faculty salaries are supported. The funds for administrative support are expected to relieve faculty of some administrative burdens connected with a project, but not relieve them of their responsibility to organize and lead the project and to play active roles in recruitment, teaching, and mentoring of students. IGERT award funds must go primarily toward training activities. In addition to a graduate-student stipend, an IGERT award provides a cost-of-education allowance up to $10,500 per year per student; this allowance covers tuition and fees that include institutionally required health insurance. Consequently, students covered by an IGERT award are expected to be exempt from tuition and fees. The institution can claim up to 8% overhead on direct costs minus the equipment and cost-of-education allowances.

Foundations. In addition to government initiatives, nonprofit organizations provide funding for predoctoral and postdoctoral training. For example, the Flinn Foundation, in Arizona, supports university-based interdisciplinary research programs.13 The funds are directed toward stipend support, expenses associated with guest lectures and symposia, and other costs. In an effort to build on the successes of research in such fields as cellular and molecular biology, genetics, immunology, and neuroscience to provide new therapies, improved diagnostic methods, and preventive interventions, the foundation funds programs that have a multidisciplinary faculty doing collaborative research on a common theme, or a single organ or disease. Nine interdisciplinary research groups have received grants totaling over $5 million under the foundation's Biomedical Research Initiative.

Implementation of Programs

Training programs have used the funding mechanisms described above to provide support within departments, across departments in programs, to separate schools within a university, and even across institutions. For example, the doctoral program in Health and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Colorado at Denver is a cross-departmental program in which several departments contribute faculty, overhead, and so on. At Johns Hopkins University (see Box 4-3), the program is incorporated into a department. The School of Social Ecology at the University of California at Irvine was established as an independent school with degree-granting departments, integrated around muitidisciplinary problems. At the University of California Los Angeles, the Brain Research Institute established a training program on sleep (and grants a PhD degree) that allows trainees to do their laboratory work anywhere in the nation and belong to a consortium of universities and laboratories focused on this subject. The options are endless and are subject only to the imagination of the investigators and the constraints imposed by the subject of study (see Box 4-4).

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BOX 4-3

Cognitive Science of Language and the Department of Cognitive Sciences: An IGERT Program, The Johns Hopkins University. The Johns Hopkins University Department of Cognitive Sciences received funding for an IGERT program in 1999. The program brings together (more...)

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BOX 4-4

Interdisciplinary Training, University of Pittsburgh. Over 2 decades, the program at Pittsburgh has grown into an exceptional model of interdisciplinary research and training. Through the years, centers were established on affective disorders, Alzheimer's (more...)

Translational Research Training

Clinician-scientists are an important resource for interdisciplinary research that seeks to translate from bench to bedside and back. Clinician-scientists from a variety of clinical fields understand the impact of diseases on human functioning and well-being and are in a prime position to ask the appropriate translational questions. The training of clinician-scientists is inherently interdisciplinary. Grounded in both clinical and basic science, the clinician-scientist is well positioned to participate in collaborative efforts that bridge the bench to bedside gap.

Training of Physician-Scientists

As discussed in chapter 3, concerns about the declining number of physician-scientists have been expressed for decades.76,86,91 The NIH has a number of programs that are designed to encourage physician-scientists. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) established the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) in 1964 to train MD/PhD students in both the biomedical sciences and clinical practice. It was intended that these new scientists would span basic and clinical research efforts. The program supports PhD training in the biological, chemical, and physical sciences combined with training in medicine. Additional disciplines supported include social and behavioral sciences, computer sciences, economics, epidemiology, public health, bioengineering, biostatistics, and bioethics. A recent analysis of the MSTP indicated that MSTP graduates have more research-intensive careers, with greater likelihood of research support and academic appointments and higher publication rates, than MSTP trainees who received only an MD degree after withdrawing from the PhD training.33 In addition, MSTP graduates are less likely to be in independent practice. To judge by the outcomes assessed by the study, the program is successful in encouraging the integration of research activities with the practice of medicine and promoting research programs relevant to human health and disease. Other analyses of MD/PhD programs have also suggested that they are successful in producing physician/scientists.9,15,20,21,78,89

Although the MSTP does provide for PhDs outside the traditional biomedical disciplines, implementation of this option is unusual. Of the 103 MD/PhD programs surveyed in 1990, only 10–15% allowed medical students to pursue a PhD in the social sciences, behavioral sciences, or humanities.16 Even among this limited number, only three were substantial programs: those of Harvard University (supported by the MacArthur Foundation), the University of Chicago (supported by the Pew Trust), and the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign (supported by state funds). Reviews of those programs indicate their success in producing academic physicians. The Harvard program, for instance, granted five PhDs in anthropology, and one each in history of science, social psychology, cognitive psychology, political science, and politics/economics/government. All the graduates entered full-time academic positions: nine in medical school faculties and one in an arts and science faculty (Leon Eisenberg, director of the Harvard program, personal communication). A review early in the University of Chicago program indicated similar success with graduates entering research and teaching positions.92 Yachnin (former director of the Chicago program) et al.92 concluded that the program produced physicians who are “more deeply concerned with the broader societal issues confronting medicine.” Diane Gottheil, director of the University of Illinois program (personal communication), recently conducted a survey of the 52 MD/PhD graduates with a PhD in the humanities and social sciences. Their career paths indicated that they are strong contributors to academic medicine. In recognition of the need for MDs to understand the behavioral and sociological aspects of disease, to address the important issues of behavior change and adherence, to use the advances in biotechnology fully, and to think globally about population and environmental factors in disease, the committee strongly recommends that training in these non-traditional fields should be encouraged.

NIH funds career awards to develop the capacity of physicians to conduct clinical research (see Appendix D). For example, the Mentored Clinical Scientist Development Award (K08) provides 3–5 years of supervised support for people with clinical degrees. The intent is to encourage newly trained clinicians to develop basic and clinical research capability. The Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award (K23) provides 5 years of support for physicians who have completed their specialty training and are planning to do clinical research. Programs that address specific needs are often identified through program announcements. These awards provide an opportunity for people committed to research to develop into independent biomedical and/or behavioral investigators.

Private foundations have also tried to promote the physician-scientist. From 1989 to 1994, the Lucille P. Markey Charitable Trust funded general organizational grants to about 20 programs that provided clinical exposure for PhD candidates and postdoctoral fellows or that encouraged MDs to conduct research. The aim was to promote the bench-to-bedside translation of research. The National Research Council is conducting a comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness of this program, using such indicators as program continuation after grant completion, peer opinion of the program, and student and faculty status.2,64,85

The Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program provides 2 years of graduate-level training for new physicians in nonbiological sciences important to medical care systems.75 Disciplines include epidemiology, biostatistics, medical information sciences, economics, the social sciences, anthropology, history of medicine, law, ethics, and the humanities. Up to 20% of the time may be spent in maintaining clinical skills. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, this program has been successful in training physicians who stay involved with academic research and medicine, public policy, or management of healthcare delivery.75

Clinician-Scientists in Fields Other than Medicine

Clinically oriented doctoral programs include not only physicians (MDs and MD/PhDs) but also dentists (DDSs and DMDs), pharmacists (PharmDs), psychologists (PhDs), and nurse scientists (PhDs and DNScs). Some trainees in clinical disciplines obtain the clinical component as part of a master's degree program and then obtain a PhD in a related field to provide the research component (for example, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy). All these clinician-scientists can offer particular clinical perspectives in interdisciplinary patient-oriented research.

To support translational research by nonphysician clinicians, NIH offers training programs that are similar to those tailored to MDs. For example, the National Institute of Dental Research29 supports a Dentist Scientist Award and the institutional postdoctoral NRSA31 to allow dentists to obtain the PhD in a relevant research field. The institute also supports a Dental Scientist Training Program (DSTP) based on the MSTP model in which trainees concurrently pursue the DDS or DMD and PhD degrees, in an integrated, interdisciplinary program.30 The National Institute of Nursing Research supports a Career Transition Award (K22 mechanism) that provides up to 5 years of salary and research support, first at NIH and then at an extramural institution, to help bridge the transition to the status of independent researcher.47

Nursing doctoral education, at least at the major research universities, is highly interdisciplinary and thus provides a good basis for the bridge scientist role. Consequently, support for education in this inherently interdisciplinary field is support for both translational and interdisciplinary training. Nurse-scientists are generally clinicians who have obtained research education and training through formal doctoral degree programs, either in closely allied fields or in nursing science. The PhD and DNSc are research degrees offered in nursing science by 75 universities in the United States. In addition, many nurse-scientists obtain PhDs in various fields of biomedical and behavioral sciences. The strongest of the nursing science PhDs are built on a highly interdisciplinary base or come out of joint programs in nursing and a biomedical or behavioral science.12 The strong interdisciplinary programs are clustered in the strong research-intensive universities with large academic medical centers. The same interdisciplinary character applies to the research focus of social workers, who are involved in such issues as child abuse, homelessness, drug abuse, poverty, violence, and mental illness. There are about 55 doctoral programs in social work; these programs are based primarily in large universities that can provide the background to ask integrated research questions that include behavioral sciences, medicine, economics, and sociology.7,17

Clinical Training for PhDs

Training basic scientists in clinical sciences is another mechanism for enhancing translational research. This approach does not replace the role of clinician-scientists, but it can focus research efforts on clinical questions and provide a complement to the clinician-scientists.

At the committee's workshop “Opportunities for Interdisciplinary Training,” (IOM Workshop, 1999) Irwin Arias reported that a survey of 372 students in basic science departments of medical schools indicated a strong desire to do research with an impact on human health. To encourage that drive and to provide the necessary tools, Tufts University has developed a pathobiology program for PhD students, fellows, and faculty that consists mainly of a one-semester course.3 The course exposes students to the clinical-pathological and basic mechanisms of 20 major human diseases. Students see patients, handle pathology, and become informed about major diagnostic and therapeutic facilities in a modern hospital. An outcome survey reflected the success of the program in encouraging participants to pursue relevant research careers in industry or academe. Of the 78 students who have completed their postdoctoral training, 33 have excellent positions in biotechnical and pharmaceutical companies, where they are engaged in research that affects human health. The others are in tenure track positions either in basic science departments or in clinical departments of medical schools.

At the June 15–16, 1999, Conference on Physician Scientists and Career Opportunities for Biomedical Research (FASEB, Rockville, Maryland), Franklin Bunn, of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston described another program designed to introduce PhD graduate students to human biology and disease. Basic coursework focuses on human pathology. Courses and seminars are attended jointly with medical students. The program is intended to encourage trainees to have mentors from the medical school and to promote collaboration with physicians. The program is new and its effectiveness has not yet been evaluated.

Several university programs are attempting to incorporate translational efforts into doctoral training. For example, Baylor College of Medicine established the Neurobiology of Disease Program to provide interdisciplinary training in molecular, cellular, and clinical neurosciences.5 The focus is on disease-oriented research and training. At the predoctoral level, a course in neurobiology of disease and a monthly seminar series are offered. Laboratory rotations allow students to select fields of specialization. Frequent visiting speakers and a regular neurobiology of disease journal club are sponsored by the program. In the PhD and MD/PhD programs in behavioral neuroscience at Boston University School of Medicine, students have the opportunity to assist medical staff in providing consultative services and to participate in daily and grand rounds.6 Students choosing this option have the opportunity for direct observation of clinical pathologies.

The pharmaceutical industry is interested in training doctoral fellows in clinical research and drug development. Some companies have developed fellowships in partnership with universities. An example is the program at the University of North Carolina in collaboration with Burroughs Wellcome.73 Students in the program pursue a clinical research project, attend an Institutional Review Board meeting, and participate in planning and monitoring clinical trials at the drug company. A survey of the fellows, sent out in May 1986 to look at the trainees' career paths, showed that most had found employment associated with clinical research.


As described in chapter 3, faculty members are particularly vulnerable early in their careers as they establish themselves and face tenure and promotion decisions. At this juncture in their careers, many feel that it is unwise to follow an unconventional path. Granting mechanisms aimed specifically at junior faculty and new investigators that encourage interdisciplinary efforts could provide an incentive to move toward broader research questions that would otherwise be rejected as poor career choices.

Several career development awards are available through NIH to support junior faculty (see Appendix D). These awards can encourage investigators to pursue translational research, and they provide the freedom to continue learning new approaches to scientific questions. As discussed above in the case of physicians planning to do clinical research, the Mentored Clinician Scientist Development Award (K08) and the Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award (K23) provide support. The Independent Scientist Award, K02, aims to promote the research capability of young scientists early in their careers (within 6 years of obtaining their degree), providing 5 years of partial salary support plus a small research allowance. The award is geared toward people whose independent research careers would be encouraged by the additional, intensive scientific experience. The institution must demonstrate support for the development of the scientists and allow them to spend 75% of their time on research-related activities.

Foundations have programs that provide similar support for junior faculty. The William T. Grant Foundation's Faculty Scholars Program provides up to 5 years of salary support (up to 50% effort) for untenured faculty to do social and behavioral research on adolescents and youth.90 At least one mentor is required. Interdisciplinary efforts are especially encouraged and can be achieved through a choice of mentor from another discipline. More senior faculty are considered only if they are shifting their research focus substantially. The program requires a university to commit to providing the remaining 50% of salary support, laboratory space, and at least 50% free time for the faculty member. By supporting scientists early in their careers and providing them opportunities to broaden their scope, the Grant Foundation expects to encourage multidisciplinary research on the issues concerning youths.


The need for interdisciplinary training does not end with the establishment of a career. Scientists working in a field might find that answering the research questions facing them requires new approaches and that different perspectives would benefit their research. Others might find that their specialization no longer generates state-of-the-art research and does not attract funding. And others might simply desire to know more about a hot new subject. These researchers are all candidates for additional training. Several funding approaches are available for midcareer scientists to broaden their scope. Most such interdisciplinary endeavors probably occur without such a funding mechanism, but funding provides support for expanding and formalizing such activities and is likely to go far in encouraging an interdisciplinary approach.

Midcareer Investigator Awards

Career development awards are available through NIH for established scientists, as well as for junior faculty (appendix D). The award mechanisms can easily be focused on interdisciplinary training. The Midcareer Investigator Award in Patient-Oriented Research (K24) supports a clinical investigator to spend up to 50% effort on clinical research. The Senior Scientist Award (K05) provides salary support (minimum, 75%) to established investigators with demonstrated productivity; the intent is to allow them to engage in research activities for the majority of their time. With these funding mechanisms, provisions could be added to encourage investigators to focus on interdisciplinary problems that require research attention.

Foundations also have programs to provide midcareer opportunities for scientists. The MacArthur Fellows Program provides 5 years of salary support to exceptional people to allow them to devote time to promising subjects.84 The investment is in the person rather than in a particular project. It requires no project proposal; recipients are chosen from recommendations by designated nominators. In this program, interdisciplinary efforts are encouraged. Fellows are free to work in multiple fields, to train in new fields, or even to change directions in their careers. Another example is a recent initiative of the McDonnell Foundation called Bridging Brain, Mind, and Behavior. Its “21st Century Scientist Award” provides substantial funding (up to $450,000 over 3–6 years) for investigators to pursue innovative research spanning neurobiological, cognitive, and behavioral sciences.80 No indirect or administrative costs are provided. The program especially invites research proposals that might not otherwise be funded by traditional sources because of their novelty or interdisciplinary nature. Investigators at any stage in their careers can apply, but applications from scientists early in their careers are particularly encouraged.

Foundations have supported a number of fellowships that are designed to add skills to people already trained in one field. For example, Robert Wood Johnson's Health Policy Fellowships Program supports midcareer health professionals for a year as they work in a program designed to educate them about policy processes.74 A combination of didactic training, work experience in a congressional office, and informal meetings with senior government officials, members of Congress, journalists, and academic experts provides an understanding of federal processes. The program not only has helped to reorient the careers of trainees toward policy, but also has enhanced the health policymaking process by providing policymakers with the expertise of health professionals. According to a 1992 evaluation, the vast majority of the alumni continue some effort related to health policy.

Sabbaticals often provide an opportunity for established researchers to try something new. It can be a time to work with a geographically distant colleague to learn new techniques and explore new ideas. Some foundations have programs that support sabbaticals for midcareer scientists. For example, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund's Clinical Scientist Award supports established physician-scientists for up to 5 years to do translational research.8 During the award period, investigators must spend at least 75% of their time in research. The award will provide up to 1 year of support for a sabbatical at another institution or department for an investigator to obtain new skills for research.

Fellowships and sabbatical programs for midcareer scientists could provide a mechanism for retraining and broadening the scope of established scientists interested in interdisciplinary research. Each approach can be used to encourage people to develop a new approach, learn a new field, or establish collaboration outside their discipline. In this way, it would be possible to expand the cadre of scientists capable of addressing the interdisciplinary problems facing science today.

Faculty Development Programs

Exposure to other disciplines can also be obtained from colleagues within a person's home institution. Interactions among scientists enhance communication and provide alternative views of a research question. For the most part, these interactions are informal. Scientifically pivotal conversations can occur by chance. Some approaches increase the likelihood of these interactions.

One of the most common mechanisms is the departmental seminar series in which a speaker, invited from outside the department or from down the corridor, stimulates new ideas or even collaborations. Another alternative is a formalized course for faculty development as proposed by Ullian and Stritter.88 An integrated local program uses a core faculty to provide training in a faculty function, such as teaching or research, and requires a commitment of 10–20% effort over 1–2 years. Such a program can be well suited to training in translational research, to provide a clinical perspective to basic scientists or new scientific advances to clinicians. At the committee's workshop (Opportunities in Interdisciplinary Training), Dr. Stritter described how this program was used to train clinical faculty to do collaborative research. The Health Resources and Services Administration funds a program, Faculty Development in Primary Care, that provides fellowships plus planning and operational expenses for these kinds of training programs for physicians who plan to teach.19 A similar mechanism could be implemented to cover other faculty development programs that enhance interdisciplinary or translational research.


Senior investigators often receive informal training through their participation in meetings and workshops. When they come together with investigators from different disciplines, information and ideas are likely to be exchanged and then taken back to the laboratory and used in research. To encourage that type of exchange, several NIH institutes put out a request for applications for Educational Workshops in Interdisciplinary Research.72 Using an R25 mechanism (Education Project Grant), NIH supports workshops lasting 1–2 weeks that bring together social, behavioral, and biomedical researchers to integrate research efforts across the fields. The educational goal was to promote an interdisciplinary understanding of approaches and theoretical perspectives among investigators early in their careers; the long-term objective was to encourage collaboration and to develop interdisciplinary initiatives. NIH also provides funding for symposia and meetings through R13 and U13 mechanisms. These can also be used to enhance interdisciplinary efforts by supporting programs that bring together people in diverse fields to focus on particular scientific questions. In such an environment, cross training of investigators and encouragement of collaboration would develop naturally.

NIH generally uses the R25 mechanism to fund educational activities that are not adequately supported by other grant mechanisms. The activities typically are brief (less than 3 months) and encompass short courses, workshops, seminars, short research experiences, and development or evaluation of educational programs. Longer research experiences are covered only if adequately justified.39 A recent request for applications expanded on this, allowing 1–2 years of support for training experiences that fostered translational research as part of a larger “education and training center.”42 Funds can be used, for instance, to encourage clinical research by providing funds for postdoctoral fellows or residents who wish to continue mentored clinical or translational research. This program can also provide support for translational researchers at a critical point in their careers: between the postdoctoral position and the first K award.

Multi-Institutional Programs

Consortia and multi-institutional programs provide forums for a far-reaching integration of research efforts in multiple disciplines. Programs supporting groups of scientists from several disciplines can foster new kinds of research that go beyond one discipline. For investigators involved with a consortium, opportunities abound to learn from colleagues and to broaden the scope of research efforts. Participants learn a good deal about each other's methods, but people need not become expert in the skills of another discipline; rather, the investigators work as a team, with each discipline contributing to a collaborative effort. Funding mechanisms are available from both federal and private sources. Some efforts do not specifically indicate training activities; others include postdoctoral or predoctoral training.

NIH Centers

The specialized center grant (P50 mechanism) supports the full range of research and development from basic to clinical and intervention studies, as well as health services, policy, and surveillance research. These grants differ from traditional program project grants (PO1 mechanism) in that they are more complex and flexible with respect to the activities that can be supported. In addition to support for interdisciplinary research projects, support may be provided for career development research activities, a small number of pilot research projects, and specialized resources and shared facilities aimed at supporting the range of proposed research. Principal investigators are responsible for the planning, direction, and execution of the proposed program.

The requests for P50 grants are centered within the various NIH institutes. Each institute has established its own approach to these grants. For the most part, they are not used for training activities, but there are several notable examples in which either training is explicitly funded by the program or links to training are expected to exist. For instance, the request for Alcohol Research Center grants states that “while the center need not necessarily have formal training of its own, there must be specific provision for coordination between the Center and the training programs at the applicant institution and/or affiliated institutions.”49 In addition, the center must demonstrate the capacity to conduct continuing education and to train predoctoral and postdoctoral students. Similarly, the request for the Silvio O. Conte Centers for the Neuroscience of Mental Disorders requires that there be close coordination between a center and institutional training programs.41 In contrast, a recent program announcement from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) for Centers for Behavioral Science Research in Mental Health requires that funds from the award be used to support at least two trainees each year.40 The request for applications for Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Centers takes this further and makes career development a merit criterion for evaluation for funding.23 The announcement encourages centers to provide “career development [for those] who demonstrate potential for independent research careers in transdisciplinary tobacco-related research or who are established investigators and are changing the direction of their research careers.”

P50 awards provide support for a broad interdisciplinary research program consisting of related research endeavors and associated core infrastructure to ensure their effective and synergistic functioning. The activities included in the supported research must be thematically integrated, interdisciplinary, and synergistic. Research supported through this mechanism must reflect in clear ways interdependence of components of the research program that would not arise simply from the mere collection of the individual components. Taken as a whole, a center is expected to enable a level of achievement that exceeds what would be expected on the basis of the sum of its parts. Furthermore, each center is encouraged to address a wide range of research, from basic to clinical applications, around its central theme. Center support should be essential to the achievement of the work that is proposed.

NSF Centers

The NSF initiated the Science and Technology Centers Program in 1987 to encourage multidisciplinary research, technology transfer to nonacademic institutions, and innovative educational approaches. The science supported by the centers is expected to be at the “interfaces of disciplines” or novel approaches within a discipline. The centers are expected to bring together organizations that include separate campuses, schools, government agencies, national laboratories, or industry (see Box 4-5). Like the IGERT program, an important focus of the Science and Technology Centers is the preparation of students for broad career paths.66 The centers have been judged to be very successful in a number of impartial reviews (most recently, National Research Council, 199662). They provide facilities for research interactions and education that include collaboration with industry and national laboratories. The broad-scope, problem-based research supported by the centers has been effective in addressing complex scientific problems.

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BOX 4-5

NSF Science and Technology Center for Biological Timing, University of Virginia. The Science and Technology Center for Biological Timing brings together investigators of the University of Virginia, Brandeis University, North-western University, and Rockefeller (more...)

The Science and Technology Centers have annual budgets of $1.5–$4.0 million. A successful center grant is funded with an initial commitment of 5 years. After the fourth year, the centers must undergo a comprehensive review. Successful centers are monitored every 18 months for the next 5 years. NSF limits funding to a total of 10 years. It is expected that support for the centers will be supplemented by other sources, including the institution, but no preset amounts are required.

NSF has also created a large consortium for research on violence that is coordinated through Carnegie Mellon University.70 It brings together researchers from 24 institutions in the United States, Canada, and Europe to address broad issues related to the causes and consequences of violence.


Private foundations have a history of funding consortia. An example is the MacArthur Foundation Program on Human and Community Development.82The program encompasses several research consortia that address aspects of access to economic opportunity, building of community capacity, child and youth development, and mental health. Each component is linked with the others to enhance the integration of findings and applications. Among almost 20 consortia covered by this program is a Network on Psychopathology and Development, which integrates biological and behavioral approaches and brings together investigators from diverse fields to explore the developmental pathways toward mental illness.81 Another network supported by the MacArthur program is Network on Early Experience and Brain Development, which integrates the efforts of developmental psychology, neurobiology, and behavioral pediatrics to assess the relationship between the brain and behavioral development.83 Each of these networks that individually have a broad scope are further integrated under the full program designed in an effort to obtain solutions to community problems.

The William T. Grant Foundation similarly has supported eight consortia, including the Consortium on Chronic Physical Disease in Children, which now continues to operate with federal support. It brought together pediatricians, an epidemiologist, a sociologist, a psychologist, an economist, and a public health administrator who conducted collaborative research with large national data sets.18


Underrepresentation of minorities and women is not unique to interdisciplinary training and research. Recruitment from these populations presents a challenge for all scientific fields. However, the problem is exacerbated, perhaps, by the additional obstacles faced by those interested in interdisciplinary problems, as described in chapter 3. Cultural and ethnic diversity that comes from participation of varied populations can enhance interdisciplinary and translational research. An example is bench-to-bedside research that focuses on health disparities within the American population. Minority institutions provide unique opportunities to work cooperatively with patients through community-based organizations where these populations are disproportionately affected.

Many programs exist specifically to encourage underrepresented populations in biomedical and behavioral sciences. Some of these programs are briefly reviewed below with explanations of how they can be extended to support interdisciplinary efforts.

Outreach to Undergraduates and High School Students

It is at the undergraduate level that students often are stimulated to enter research. Outreach programs early in the education of minority students have been observed in a number of assessments to encourage students to enter biomedical careers.1,10,87

Several NIH programs are designed to encourage undergraduates, especially members of underrepresented groups, to pursue scientific careers. One such program, supported by NIMH, is the Career Opportunities in Research (COR) Education and Training Program. The COR Honors Undergraduate Research Training Grant (T34 mechanism) provides funds to 4-year colleges or universities that have substantial minority enrollment in an effort to enhance their curriculum in biobehavioral sciences and to prepare students for research careers in mental health.37 Graduates of the program are expected to be competitive for doctoral-level training programs. NIMH also funds the COR Education Program for Honors High School Students (R25 mechanism).36 The training grant is awarded to minority institutions already funded through the undergraduate program. It provides mentoring and research experience to minority high school students to encourage them to choose careers in mental health research. As illustrated by the example in Box 4-6, these programs can be useful in providing an interdisciplinary perspective early in the students' careers.

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BOX 4-6

COR Honors Minority Program, Grambling State University. Grambling State University is an historically black college in Louisiana. This program selects students who are majoring in biology, chemistry, psychology, or criminal justice and have an expressed (more...)

Other NIH institutes also have programs for undergraduates that are intended to encourage members of underrepresented minority groups to enter graduate programs. NIGMS offers the Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research (U-STAR) Program with aims similar to those of the COR programs.35 NIGMS also offers the Initiative for Minority Students: Bridges to the Baccalaureate Degree to facilitate transition from 2-year junior or community colleges to 4-year institutions.34 NSF awards will also support outreach programs to encourage minority involvement in research (see Box 4-7).

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BOX 4-7

The Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, Atlanta, Georgia. The mission of this NSF-funded center is to bring together the unique resources from a consortium of Atlanta colleges and universities to build a program that will investigate the brain processes (more...)

Minority Faculty Development

Many NIH funding mechanisms are oriented toward encouraging minorities to participate in biomedical research. Several of these can provide the mechanisms to encourage the development of an interdisciplinary perspective. The NIMH Scientist Development Award for New Minority Faculty recognizes that minority group members are often in great demand for ancillary activities at their institutions at a time when they most need to focus on establishing their careers.44 The award is intended to provide untenured faculty with at least 75% time to devote to mentored research. More than one mentor can be selected, and a mentor need not be at a trainee's home institution, although the principal mentor should be available locally.

Other programs focus on faculty at predominantly minority institutions. The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) and National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) provide the Minority Investigator Research Enhancement Award to support minority institution faculty to collaborate with NIH-funded investigators.28 The Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) Faculty Fellowship provides full-time faculty from minority institutions with funds to do research at any U.S. institution for some period, and then return to the sponsoring school.32 The MARC Visiting Scientist Program supports a visiting scientist to spend 3–12 months at a minority institution.51,60

Those mechanisms can be used to provide minority faculty with opportunities to expand their knowledge and promote an interdisciplinary perspective. The intent would be to allow investigators from institutions where interdisciplinary work would be difficult to establish the opportunity to develop new perspectives, learn new techniques, and establish new contacts. The same goals could be attained through mechanisms similar to those described in Box 4-8. In this arrangement, a consortium reaches out to minority schools to provide mentorship to junior faculty and to promote networking among scientists working in related fields. By encouraging collaboration beyond the walls of the university, funding mechanisms could establish the basis for interdisciplinary interaction and collaborative research programs.

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BOX 4-8

Family Research Consortium III (FRCIII), Pennsylvania State University. FRCIII aims to promote intellectual exchange and collaborative research and training in the study of diversity, family process, and child and adolescent mental health. The consortium (more...)

On a smaller scale, travel awards can achieve similar goals. Several NIH institutes offer minority travel awards (Minority Travel Award Program—NIAMS, NIDDKD27; Minority Institution Travel Award Program—Human Genome Project24) to either students or faculty to attend workshops, meetings, or courses relevant to their missions. To encourage minority scientists to broaden their scope and learn about other disciplines, a travel award could stipulate that the funds be used for interdisciplinary training. The proposal could describe how the travel would promote an interdisciplinary perspective.

Minority Institutions

Existing mechanisms to enhance the research at minority institutions can also be used to promote interdisciplinary efforts at these institutions. Bringing in additional expertise, purchasing an expensive piece of equipment to be shared, or supporting travel for additional training not only will enrich the university in general, but could specifically encourage interdisciplinary research. With the advent of interdisciplinary research, interdisciplinary training can follow. The development of research centers at geographic sites serving large numbers of minority students is considered by some as an effective mechanism of influencing substantial numbers of such students to consider biomedical research as an exciting and rewarding career. Role models of minority institutions, as well as individuals, provide encouragement for students. Examples of existing mechanisms for support of minority institutions follow.

The Minority Research Infrastructure Support Program (M-RISP, R24 mechanism) is sponsored by NIMH to build mental health research programs at minority institutions.38 The program supports a wide variety of activities designed to enhance the research environment and promote the capabilities ofthe faculty and students. Items covered can include the purchase of shared equipment, support for statistical cores, funding of collaborative arrangements, tuition for training seminars in scientific techniques, expenses for pilot research that will be developed for future funding, and research training for junior investigators, technicians, and assistants. By strengthening the research environment, the program expects to develop existing capacity for research and encourage participating minority students to pursue relevant careers.

Cooperative Agreements at NIH (U mechanisms) have also been used to assist minority institutions in developing their research capability. Under these mechanisms, staff at NIH act as partners to stimulate research activities, providing advice and technical expertise as required. The minority institution might also be required to establish a collaboration with a “research-intensive” institution. For example, the Collaborative Minority Institution Alcohol Research Development (CMIARD) grant encourages alcohol research at minority institutions.48 The U24 mechanism supports a minimum of three alcohol research projects that can be exploratory or pilot. In addition, the CMIARD provides core funding for such resources as development activities, administrative services, unique clinical facilities, animal facilities, biostatistical and computer services, shared equipment, and meetings to explore collaborative research. Formal research training activities are not supported by this grant mechanism, but participation in the program is expected to have a substantial effect on career development of minority faculty members. The Specialized Neuroscience Research Programs (SNRP) at Minority Institutions (U54 mechanism) fund up to three research projects in a collaborative program that focuses on a problem in neuroscience that requires an interdisciplinary approach.46 All participating investigators are expected to benefit from the sharing of resources and expertise. By their nature these cooperative agreements encourage interdisciplinary research in minority institutions.

Special Training Issues Concerning Women

Many barriers face women in research. Like the obstacles faced by minorities, these are not unique to interdisciplinary activities. But the additional obstacles imposed by interdisciplinary research can be exacerbating. Family commitments often interrupt careers of women. Interdisciplinary training is generally longer and requires more extensive networking, so an interruption during the career path can be particularly discouraging for interdisciplinary efforts. Awards that encourage reentry of people into scientific careers would benefit those interested in interdisciplinary research.

The Mentored Research Scientist Development Award (K01) provides 3–5 years of supervised research experience for people who have had postdoctoral research experience but need additional supervised development before achieving independence.58 Some NIH institutes use this award to support people who have interrupted their careers because of illness or pressing family care commitments. Others reserve it for underrepresented minorities. Other institutes use the mechanism to enhance the qualifications of the trainee.

Another mechanism used to encourage reentry into research is the Supplement to Promote Reentry into Biomedical and Behavioral Research Careers.57 It provides up to 3 years of support to people who have been out of research for 2–8 years, have at least 2 years of postdoctoral research, and would be ready for an independent research position. The program does not support postdoctoral training. Qualifying interruptions include starting or raising a family, an incapacitating illness of a candidate or candidate's spouse, relocation to accommodate a spouse, and pursuit of nonresearch endeavors to repay debt incurred by doctoral training. Principal investigators can submit an administrative supplement on their NIH awards with at least 2 years of support remaining. The proposed research must be directly related to the funded approved continuing research under the parent grant. The decision to fund a supplement takes about 8 weeks.

Administrative supplements are also available for Underrepresented Minorities56 and Individuals with Disabilities.55 They provide support for research experience for minority-group members or people with disabilities throughout the continuum from high school to the faculty level. These supplements, like the reentry supplement, are expected to provide research experience that is an integral part of the approved continuing research. The committee recognizes the potential for this type of mechanism to promote interdisciplinary research and recommends its development. Supplements for new interdisciplinary research should provide salary support for the duration of the original grant that is commensurate with full-time faculty salary. The committee cannot estimate the numbers of such supplements that will be requested, but expects the total to be modest. Given the recent increases in NIH budgets, these supplements should be feasible under existing budgets.


Because of the disciplinary focus of many funding agencies, support for interdisciplinary research can benefit from collaboration among units. It can include collaboration within NIH, collaboration among government agencies, and collaboration between government and the private sector. Examples of existing interactive efforts are described below.

Collaboration within NIH: NIH Pain Research Consortium

The NIH Pain Research Consortium, established in 1996, brings together over 20 units of NIH to promote research and collaborations on pain, to coordinate intramural and extramural programs, and to foster relationships with patient communities.54 The consortium is bringing together researchers in basic and clinical sciences for workshops and symposia that take an interdisciplinary view of pain. An intramural Pain Interest Group arranges seminars, informal discussions, and listserve communication and enhances the research efforts at NIH. Multiple institutes cosponsor requests for applications in support of pain research that includes behavioral pain research, research on low back pain and common spinal disorders, complementary and alternative medicine, and management of symptoms at the end of life.

Collaboration Across Government Agencies

The Human Brain Project Phase I Feasibility Studies

Brain and behavioral research produces vast amounts of diverse and complex data. Integrating this information is beyond the scope of an individual researcher. To encourage the development of approaches and technologies needed to address the information overload, five federal agencies joined together to sponsor the Human Brain Project.45 Representatives of NIH, NSF, the Department of Defense, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Department of Energy (DOE) make up the Federal Interagency Coordinating Committee. In addition, NASA will make its supercomputer available for Human Brain Project research.

This funding initiative is designed to encourage scientific collaboration bridging brain and behavioral research and informatics research to accelerate the understanding of the brain by providing the means to make better use and sense of data about the brain and behavior. Informatics research—which draws from computer science, information science, applied mathematics, statistics, engineering, and related fields, can contribute to solutions to the problem of keeping track of and integrating information about the brain and behavior. Projects are expected to include both an informatics research component and a brain- or behavioral-science research component in an interactive approach.

NSF Partnerships

Among the many projects that NSF funds in conjunction with other government agencies is the Plant Genome Research Program.68 This initiative is sponsored by NSF with DOE and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program aims to support research on the structure, organization, and function of plant genomes and aims to develop new knowledge and innovative technologies that will help to elucidate basic biological processes in plants. Another program, cofunded with NIH, is the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups.14 This program calls for the development of interdisciplinary programs and institutional relationships that would promote conservation of biological diversity through the development of the economic potential of sustainable biological resources, such as pharmaceuticals from natural products.

NSF partnerships with NIH are relatively few despite the fact that two agencies have complementary missions. NSF supports basic research in the sciences and engineering. Although its mission includes “advanc[ing] the national health, prosperity, and welfare,” it does not encompass biomedical research.69 The latter is within the scope of NIH, whose goal is “to acquire new knowledge to help prevent, detect, diagnose, and treat disease and disability.”61 Where basic biological research stops, clinically relevant biomedical research picks up. To span the full range of translational research—basic mechanisms through clinical trials—the committee found that collaborative efforts between NSF and NIH should be encouraged.

Government–Foundation Collaborations

Tobacco Use Research Centers

The Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Centers were initially funded through a joint effort of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to create a network of centers focusing on the prevention and treatment of tobacco use.23 In October 1999, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) formed a partnership with NIH to provide additional support for these centers and complement NCI's and NIDA's existing efforts;50 seven academic institutions, each organized around a unique theme, were funded. The 5-year program is expected to foster unique collaboration among scientists across many disciplines. The public health concerns about tobacco smoking are long-standing interests of both NIH and RWJF. The development of the program stems from a national conference in July 1998 cosponsored by NIDA and RWJF and from recommendations of NCI's Tobacco Research Implementation Group.

NIH Interactions with Foundations

NIH also collaborates with foundations on a scale that is less grand; cosponsored workshops and symposia are not uncommon. For example, a symposium, “Vaccines for Prevention and Treatment of Autoimmune Diseases” (June 8, 1998), was cosponsored by several NIH institutes and a number of nonfederal organizations. These nonprofit societies included the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation International, the Lupus Foundation of America, the American Autoimmune-Related Diseases Association, the Arthritis Foundation, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.77 In addition, the institutes will work with the non-profit societies to fund complementary components of meritorious investigator-initiated projects.25,26

Opportunities with Private Industry: GOALI

The NSF works through many of its programs to strengthen links with industry. The Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry (GOALI) program aims to strengthen university-industry partnerships by making funds available to support them.65 Of special interest is providing opportunities for faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and students to gain experience with industrial processes; for industry scientists to bring their perspectives and skills to academe; for interdisciplinary university-industry teams to conduct long-term projects. High-risk, high-gain research that would otherwise not be tackled is encouraged. The initiative seeks to develop innovative collaborative educational programs and the exchange of knowledge between universities and industry. Although industrial partners are not required to match NSF funds, cost-sharing for the collaborative work at industrial sites and universities is encouraged.


In the review of training programs, several themes emerged. Interdisciplinary training seeks to create people who can ask new questions, apply a variety of approaches, and seek appropriate collaborative expertise. Training should provide scientists with the tools to understand and use the information from other fields. In addition to teaching the substance of one or more fields, scientific education needs to provide the skills necessary to understand other disciplines and to communicate with those outside one's own field.

Postdoctoral fellows are frequently considered to be the “vector” in collaborative research. Through participation in a joint effort of two or more laboratories, the trainee has the opportunity to become knowledgeable about more than one discipline. The mentors also benefit from the interaction and learn more about another field, thereby enhancing their scope as well.

Because strong training for predoctoral and postdoctoral students builds on strong research among the faculty, interdisciplinary research should be encouraged for appropriate research problems. Mechanisms to facilitate interdisciplinary efforts should be available at all stages of a career. Special attention needs to be directed toward supporting interdisciplinary efforts of junior faculty who may be discouraged by their vulnerability as they establish their careers and face tenure and promotion decisions.

Many mechanisms already exist but should be refined to address the special needs of interdisciplinary research and training. For instance, the institutional training programs do not adequately support administrative costs. The Medical Scientist Training Program is rarely used to support PhDs in the humanities and social sciences. Funding programs to provide clinical training for PhDs are uncommon.

Partnerships among funding agencies not only allow the coordination of divergent disciplinary perspectives, they also can leverage funds. Partnerships with industry can provide trainees with unique opportunities to explore alternative career paths.

The committee reiterates its perspective that interdisciplinary research should not indiscriminately supplant disciplinary efforts. Broad training early in a career and continued training throughout a career can provide the tools to integrate multiple disciplines when required by the research question.

The committee makes the following recommendations:

Recommendation 3: Scientific education at early career stages should be sufficiently broad to produce graduates who can understand essential components of other disciplines while receiving a solid grounding in one or more fields. Criteria for NIH-supported research training should include both breadth and depth of education. Funding mechanisms to support interdisciplinary training in appropriate fields (as identified in Recommendation 1) should provide additional incentives to the universities and the trainees along the following lines:

  • Through the NIH Medical Scientist Training Program, encourage participating universities to support MD/PhD programs in the social and behavioral, as well as biomedical, sciences. Although existing program language permits such graduate study, training in social and behavioral science (e.g., anthropology, economics, psychology, and sociology) is undertaken infrequently. NIH can highlight the need for such graduates and encourage grantees to recruit them.
  • Promote translational research, an important aspect of interdisciplinary training by: (1) Providing clinical experience in PhD programs. This can range from support for single courses that expose students to human pathophysiology to training programs that require both basic research and clinical experience; (2) Supporting PhD programs and postdoctoral mentored career development awards for physicians, nurses, dentists, social workers, and other clinicians.
  • Create partnerships with the private sector to develop and support interdisciplinary training. Many of today's students will enter private industry to do translational research. Others will go on to careers in teaching, publishing, science policy, science administration, or law. Interdisciplinary perspectives are as important to success in these careers as they are in research.
  • Expand the T32 training grant awards to cover the full direct costs of implementation. This change will provide the resources necessary to support the greater expenses encountered in an interdisciplinary training program.

Recommendation 4: Funding agencies should establish a grant supplement program to foster interdisciplinary training and research. This would be administratively modeled after the supplements that exist for minorities, people with disabilities, and for people reentering research after a hiatus. Investigators with research grants who have interdisciplinary training opportunities should be able to obtain supplemental funds for qualified candidates through a relatively short application form with expedited review. Successful pilot efforts will provide data to support further applications for career development and research.

Recommendation 5: Funding opportunities for interdisciplinary training should be provided for scientists at all stages of their careers.

  • Implement career development programs that encourage junior faculty to engage in interdisciplinary research. Junior faculty need to be successful in the early phases of their research, so they are less likely than senior faculty to pursue interdisciplinary research.
  • Support midcareer investigators in developing expertise needed for interdisciplinary research. These programs should include sabbaticals, career development awards, and university-based, formal courses for faculty development to enhance interdisciplinary and/or translational research.
  • Continue funding for workshops, symposia, and meetings tobring together diverse fields to focus on a particular scientific question. In such an environment, cross training of the investigators and encouragement of collaboration would develop naturally.
  • Support consortia and multi-institutional programs that provide integration of research efforts in multiple disciplines.


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Copyright © 2000, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK44873


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