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Hybrid Vigor

I'm pleased to be writing an essay for Sterling's iconoclastic guest issue of Whole Earth for many reasons, but one that I'll share is its connection with Stewart Brand, who founded this publication.

Stewart is a legend for many things, including his uncanny ability to bestow upon projects the perfect name, and I'm happy to say that he's responsible for ours. When I told him what I was up to a year ago??creating a nonprofit to encourage researchers to cross disciplinary boundaries??he immediately declared, "Oh, you should call it 'Hybrid Vigor.'" And so I did.

The biological term for which Stewart named the Hybrid Vigor Institute describes the good juju that happens at the edges of a field when pollen from wild plants mingles with the cultivated ones, thereby increasing the strength and yield of the crops. (And, yes, we know it's an imprecise metaphor; please don't write and lecture us about it.) Hybrid vigor is also responsible for the rude health and longevity of crossbred animals (which led Stewart to add, "You could also just call it 'Mutt'").

Despite the fact that our intention is, in part, to produce some vigorous mutts from today's blueblood academic stock, I want to make it clear that we are not trying to abolish disciplines such as biology or physics, sociology, or whichever your favorite may be. We love disciplines.

In fact, if you think of disciplines as tools for producing knowledge, which they certainly are (and which qualifies them for inclusion in this review, historically a catalog of tools), then disciplinary study?primarily manifested by academic departments in universities?has pick-and-shoveled an enormous pile of precious metal from the hard stone mountain of the formerly unknown and unknowable.

But even with all the gazillions of discoveries large and small that researchers have eked out, and as much as they might want to make it so, complex understanding cannot be mined with the same brute force as a discovery; picks and shovels can only yield the next chunk of raw gold, not a fully formed grail.

Disciplines are great for discovering cell proteins, for example, but not for preventing cancer. Or for measuring the impact of methane in cow manure on the ozone layer, but not for stopping the planet from overheating. Solutions to problems of that magnitude??real problems that we need great minds to solve??take the kind of complex understanding that can only come from people of many disciplinary tribes coming together in peace to make it happen.

The limits of disciplinary study are not a big secret, or even anything new; the value of crossing disciplinary boundaries to give new perspective to stalled research agendas, and/or to more effectively solve real-world problems, has been widely accepted for decades ?by great names in science from Norbert Wiener, Werner Heisenberg, and Thomas Kuhn, to more recent practitioners such as E.O. Wilson and Leroy Hood.

More practically, Rita Colwell, the director of the National Science Foundation ?the American federal agency responsible for spending $3.3 billion on research projects annually ?has declared interdisciplinarity to be a critical component in NSF funding decisions.

Nor are the shortcomings of disciplinary science surprising to mere mortals, who often have cause to marvel at the fact that they can go to several different medical specialists about the same problem, for example, and nary a one knows anything of the others' work ?or if they know it, has anything but disdain for it.

But most researchers, and particularly "hard" scientists who have often dedicated their lives to studying the most remarkably arcane arcana, often have no intuitive sense of the wisdom of learning what other smart people are doing. For them, when higher water floats more boats, it's just harder to get out of the harbor.

So although it's kind of silly in light of proven benefits, it's not terribly surprising that hardly anyone actually practices interdisciplinarity, even though so many claim to.

Particularly it's not surprising because everything in today's university system works against it: Tenure is granted on the basis of specialization and achievement in a chosen discipline. The journals with clout, where you absolutely must publish to be considered for tenure, are all relentlessly disciplinary. The all-important departmental funding and often individual project funding is largely based on disciplinary achievement.

So there is no reward structure for crossing disciplines, either financially or professionally. In fact, you are often punished if you look outside your discipline for inspiration or, God forbid, for research partners; you're regarded as not "serious" about your work.

Then there are the personal barriers to practicing interdisciplinarity, the psychological issues of trust and fear and the marked distaste that most disciplinarians have for living with the kind of ambiguity that interdisciplinary work presents, not to mention the lack of a common language between disciplines.

The final straw for those steeped in quantitative science: There are no metrics or accepted methodologies for doing or measuring the results of interdisciplinary work, or even much sense of what kinds of problems it works best on.

What, Then, Shall We Do?

How to get researchers to "be interdisciplinary" is a big, live-wire kind of problem with the potential for lots of unintended consequences. Building an organization that asks researchers to practice this which in their minds, may mean risking their careers, even though it could yield a Holy Grail was something we knew would require a methodical, considered approach.

We decided to use Hybrid Vigor to explore both the process and the content of interdisciplinary research. Our organizing principle would be a compelling common topic already under study by widely various disciplines.

We have focused our energies on three areas where we can best explore these topics: Earth systems, health determinants, and human perception as well as interdisciplinary practice itself.

Earth systems, health determinants, and human perception are rife with problems to address. No single discipline commands the field in these areas, but great near-term progress is clearly possible, and researchers in these areas have a great many useful things to tell one another.

Interdisciplinary practice focuses on analyzing and evaluating how this type of research is best conducted, employed and assessed. We plan to design metrics for interdisciplinary work: ways to measure it, judge it, and improve it.

We're creating a new mode for organizing scientific research. It might be called a network-based Roman forum. It lets researchers interact in a novel way, at their own comfort level, outside of the university system, with Hybrid Vigor as their trusted agent.

The forum has four components:

  A quarterly journal. We're gearing up to publish four journals or monographs this year, via the Internet and the World Wide Web. Each issue will address a topic in one of our program areas. This will bring researchers from different disciplines in contact with each other's work. (Eventually we'll publish sixteen per year, four in each program area.)

Although targeted at researchers, each journal will be written for a general yet sophisticated audience, free of the disciplinary jargon that often immediately alienates a potential boundary-crosser. As one of our editorial advisors said, "All scientists are laypeople when they're outside their home discipline."

  Working conferences. Next year, or later this year if funding permits, the Institute will begin hosting an ongoing series of invitation-only working conferences. They will be organized around single, specific topics, for small groups of established researchers and graduate students from a range of disciplines. Traditionally, cross-disciplinary researchers face two very difficult tasks: finding fellow travelers outside their chosen disciplines, and gaining access to their work. Our membership network for researchers will unite them, equip them with new tools, and also compile a database of their relevant publications. The goal here is to automate serendipity.

  Post-doctoral fellowships. This final com-ponent will team post-docs with tenured professors for intensive, two-year forays outside their chosen disciplines. By bringing fellowship money for interdisciplinary work into the existing, often hostile, departmental bureaucracy, we can influence the system from the inside.

We want results, certainly. But we also plan to produce the conditions which produce results??to bring people together with each other, and with information, in a way that encourages them, and rewards them for thinking outside their fields.

We're outsiders, but this is our critical advantage. We have no baggage, no crosses to bear, no axes to grind. We are a disciplinary Switzerland??neutral in a land of warring fiefdoms and battling bureaucracies.

We did consider allying with universities early on??or, more to the point, some of our early funders did. But our academic friends and advisors warned us off.

Universities simply don't exist for this purpose. Interdisciplinary projects cost more, take longer, are hard to measure, and require a high level of ambiguity. Inside a university system, we'd either have our metabolism slowed to one degree above death, or we'd be surrounded and destroyed wholesale by the bureaucracy's antibody response. Many university-based interdisciplinary projects have paid this price in the past.

By staying independent, we can't be expelled, because we aren't a body part. Yet we can provide great benefits to all involved, without taking one dollar or one researcher away from their required disciplinary work. In fact, we might even be able to give the system a little cash ourselves.

At the end of the day, we'll measure our own effectiveness by our ability to pull thousands of researchers around the world into our net. Eventually, they'll be lured there, by our models and metrics and fresh new thinking about integrative research.

Our goal is to establish best practices, financial incentives, and a new kind of reputation??capital for crossing disciplinary boundaries in tomorrow's densely networked world.

We are convinced that when and if this happens, it will be the start of a new knowledge ecology ?a way to produce knowledge that connects, rather than protects, information. On this path to complex understanding and the creation of enduring impact, we will celebrate the primal urge behind science: that delicious ambiguity of not knowing...yet.