IRG1-3: Institutions of Interdisciplinarity

(Hyungsub Choi)

This research stream of IRG-1 examines how U.S. institutional forms from the distant past shaped current nano policies. Our starting point is the sociological observation that new institutions copy from older institutions rather than inventing structures and protocols from scratch. Research will focus on institutions promoting interdisciplinary collaboration. Interdisciplinary academic centers are the backbone of government involvement in nanotechnology, yet academic centers organized around new interdisciplinary fields are not a new phenomenon. Such centers date at least to the 1930s, when the Rockefeller Foundation used them to promote molecular biology. In the Cold War, government-funded interdisciplinary centers arose to further national security aims. We examine the Materials Research Laboratories (MRLs), academic centers funded by ARPA following Sputnik. In the 1970s, management of the MRLs shifted to NSF and, in a classic case of institutional isomorphism, sparked a wave of center-building by the agency. Using oral histories and archival materials we will trace how particular university laboratories, at schools like Cornell and Rice University, evolved into the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network. Using archival materials and policy reports we also show how these institutions provided a template for the Engineering Research Centers and Science and Technology Centers which, in turn, were models for the NSF’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers (NSEC) program. This trend toward center programs at the national level was mirrored by an upsurge of institution-building at specific universities in which new labs were fashioned from previous resources and drew models from contemporary center-funding programs at the NSF. Using documentary and ethnographic research, we will examine how values of interdisciplinarity have been instilled and have influenced lab practice. By weaving historical and sociological fieldwork we hope to assess current (and inform future) interdisciplinary institutions. Almost a decade after the first NSECs, and a half-century after the first MRLs, what have interdisciplinary centers achieved? Has interdisciplinarity become a shared norm in the nanoscience community? Has university-industry cooperation become another community norm?

Projects Include:

IRG1-3a: The Origins of Academic Interdisciplinary Research: Emergence and Transformation of Materials Research Laboratories, 1960-1975

IRG1-3b: Building Interdisciplinary Institutions, 1965-1995