In the fall of 2014, Provost (now President) Dale Whittaker announced a faculty cluster hiring initiative with the goal of fostering the development of strong, interdisciplinary academic teams focused on solving tomorrow’s most challenging societal problems. Dr. Graham Worthy, UCF Coastal Director and Research Lead, jumped at this opportunity.
While developing his cluster proposal, Dr. Worthy discovered there were already over two dozen faculty on campus who studied coastal issues in one way or another. They belonged to various departments all across campus– and many of them had never even met each other. An unfortunate reality of a departmental administrative structure (academic silos) is that there is not always an opportunity to get to know our colleagues in other departments. It was clear that simply being on the same campus was insufficient and that the silos needed to come down.
While the traditional silo structure may be effective in a niche science community, it can complicate conversations with scientists in other disciplines. A silo mentality can limit creativity, flexibility and nimbleness, and actually discourage people from working across disciplines. Of course this doesn’t mean that traditional academic departments should be disbanded. On the contrary, traditional departments give the required disciplinary depth to the research while the interdisciplinary team gives breadth to the overall effort.
The challenge is to expand breadth, but not lose the power of depth. The best way to do that is to develop an interdisciplinary team approach. Dr. Worthy envisioned having a core interdisciplinary team who 1) worked in close physical proximity to one another and 2) served as a linkage to the disciplinary strengths of their tenure home departments. The cluster proposal was a success and five new, very interdisciplinary faculty were hired, who now share a suite of offices and labs.
The next step was to propose the creation of a formal center and in February of 2019 the National Center for Integrated Coastal Research (UCF Coastal) was approved by the Florida State University System Board of Governors. Since that approval, a process has been started to develop our own interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Sustainable Coastal Systems.
UCF Coastal brings together over 40 faculty in 12 departments and seven colleges including biologists, chemists, engineers and biomedical researchers working together with anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, planners, emergency managers and economists. UCF Coastal’s mission is to assess natural and human-related impacts to the health, restoration, and sustainability of our coastal systems and to conduct long-term, integrated and interdisciplinary research.
The ultimate goal is to integrate science with societal needs, and thereby guide more effective economic development and planning, environmental stewardship, hazard mitigation planning and public policy development. In the end we aim to ensure the economic AND ecological health of coastal communities.
UCF Coastal’s integrated interdisciplinary approach lends itself to working on issues that are both immediate and long term. Melding pure academic research with applied research to ultimately help solve current issues, but also to help avoid, or at least minimize, future issues.
When scientists integrate their science with societal needs, we can begin to achieve effective environmental stewardship, planning and public policy development.