MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVIII No. 3
January / February 2006
Life Sciences at MIT:
A History and Perspective
Reflecting on the Report of the
Task Force on Medical Care
Promotion and Tenure for
Interdisciplinary Junior Faculty
Reviewing the Committee on
Graduate School Programs
The Challenge and Rewards of Faculty-Student Interactions in the Residence Halls
Troubling whistle-blower article
Regarding the Report of the Task Force on Medical Care for the MIT Community
Valentine: Faith; Valentine: Invention
Mildred Dresselhaus
OpenCourseWare at Home
MIT Retirement Plans: A Brief Summary
MIT Rated 7th in Latest U.S. News Ranking
% of MIT Constituencies Using OCW
OCW Impact on the MIT Community
Printable Version


Promotion and Tenure for
Interdisciplinary Junior Faculty


MIT has a tradition of systems thinking – performing research with real-world impact – and therefore attracts faculty in boundary-crossing areas. This commitment to interdisciplinary research was reaffirmed by President Hockfield in her May 6, 2005 inaugural address: “…With our expertise in interdisciplinary problem-solving, MIT is uniquely equipped, and obliged, to make a critical difference: to do the analysis, to create the innovations, to fuel the economy, and to educate the leaders the world needs now.” [] There are many examples of successful interdisciplinary projects and faculty around campus. However, the question is whether MIT’s procedures and attitudes towards interdisciplinary faculty are consistent with these objectives. The core question here is whether the criteria and processes for promotion and tenure of interdisciplinary faculty are appropriate and effective.

Framing the Problem

By interdisciplinary research, we are referring to scientific investigation of questions that require assumptions, methods, and tools from fields or disciplines that are traditionally distinct and not formally connected. In other words, if one attempted to trace the reference network of such fields, the intersection of both keywords and authors would be very small, relative to the size of the parent fields themselves.

Some examples of interdisciplinary research currently in process around the Institute include:

  • Studying the effect of natural sunlight and air quality on building architecture and technology as well as human physiology
  • Examining the interactions among government policy, regulations, and new technologies on public and private transportation systems
  • Exploring the mechanical, chemical, and kinetic interactions of both man-made and natural materials at nanometer resolution levels
  • Performing research at the intersection of internet technology and networks, new media, and privacy issues
  • Examining technology hurdles, regulatory schemes, and economic incentives in the evolution of new renewable energy sources
  • Studying bioinformatics, a discipline at the conjunction of biology, genetics, and information sciences.
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Almost by definition, an interdisciplinary field of research is one where a community of researchers is newly forming and not yet well established. In common parlance, it represents a departure from “normal science” and tends toward emerging logics. So the first question is how do we identify senior colleagues and researchers that are challenged by evaluating new contributions and interdisciplinary work, rather than comparing candidates to junior colleagues working in traditional, single disciplinary fields?

The second question pertains to journals. Of course there are Science and Nature, but in many emerging interdisciplinary fields the journals do not exist (yet), or are not yet highly rated. In some instances, interdisciplinary work gets published in the “other” categories of traditional journals and is tolerated, but recognized as not being in the main stream. By definition, the “other” is relegated to residual status.

Further Defining Interdisciplinarity

Generally speaking, there are really two types of interdisciplinary fields. One involves research in the domains of interest of two or more science or engineering fields. Examples are: the study of biomaterials, chemistry of pollutants, biotechnology, hazardous waste and its remediation, etc. This type of interdisciplinary research, by and large, has been going on for many years at MIT, and journals in any of these disciplines would be interested in publishing research results. In this case, each of the fields is fully established, and linkages are made between the two. The Institute seems quite comfortable with evaluation and promotion of individuals who work in these areas.

The second type of interdisciplinary research, which is really the concern of this editorial, is that which resides at the cross-section of science and technology with social sciences and management.

These are the research domains which have been evolving over the past several years, and MIT still has difficulty coming to grips with the issues of evaluation and promotion of the faculty in these fields. This type of research is frequently large scale, addressing problems that exhibit a great deal of systems complexity, and usually involving relatively large numbers of faculty from different disciplines. The number and variety of faculty working on a single project further increases the difficulty of delineating individual contributions. Some examples of this type of interdisciplinary study include large-scale weapons development and acquisition, transport systems (especially in urban areas, which often involves multi-model transport and a great deal of political and economic considerations), and similarly large-scale energy systems which concern not only production distribution, but also user interfaces and global warming. These are all examples of important research initiatives in relatively, if not entirely, uncharted terrain.

Although lip service is often given to the value of interdisciplinary research, there seems to be reason for concern by junior faculty working interdisciplinarily.

On January 26, a group of about 15 junior untenured faculty met with Provost Rafael Reif, because of their concern about precisely this issue. There are also numerous examples of former, interdisciplinary colleagues who were unsuccessful in the tenure process at MIT. We do not question the outcomes, but we do suggest that in some cases the decision might have been arrived at through a flawed process that did not properly review and value contributions at the intersections of well-established, traditional fields.

So what is to be done; how should this be addressed? What can MIT do to recognize the contributions of its junior (and senior) interdisciplinary faculty? How can MIT facilitate, not impede their work? Some solutions might include mentoring (formal and informal) and consideration of interdisciplinarity during promotion and tenure reviews.

We do not have all the answers. But one thing is abundantly clear: This issue is critical to MIT’s future, to retaining its leadership position at the forefront of science and technology, and to the continued role of the Institute in addressing the myriad of problems in an increasingly complex and interdisciplinary world. We welcome your thoughts on this most important issue.

Editorial Sub-Committee
Nazli Choucri
Olivier de Weck
Fred Moavenzadeh

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