boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

Harvard alters its approach to scientific study

Collaboration a key to plan

The Harvard University corporation will devote $50 million to begin an ambitious effort to encourage interdisciplinary science research, signaling the governing board's determination to make fundamental changes in the university's approach to science, even as it searches for a new president.

The money, Harvard officials said yesterday, will be under the control of a powerful new, university-wide science and engineering planning committee, a striking change for an institution that has traditionally given enormous power to the relatively autonomous heads of its academic departments.

The committee will use the money to create new interdisciplinary departments, hire faculty, fund research, and pay for new equipment and laboratory space for research that crosses traditional boundaries. Possible areas of focus that have been under discussion include stem cell research, engineering new devices modeled on living organisms, and innovative uses of computing.

The corporation yesterday expressed general support for a new department focused on stem cell biology. Research in this Department of Developmental and Regenerative Biology would range from basic science to medical applications. The department, which is still in the planning stages and has not been approved, would be another historic first for Harvard: A university-wide department, bringing together researchers from the medical school and the faculty of arts and sciences.

The changes are a response to a scathing faculty report, completed last year, which said the university's entrenched bureaucratic structures stifle collaboration and threaten its leadership in scientific research. Many universities are struggling to find ways to reorganize their approach to science and engineering as the boundary lines between traditional disciplines such as chemistry and biology dissolve. The corporation's decisions, which are part of planning for the new campus in Allston, are a sign that Harvard is moving quickly.

"The fact that Harvard, which has probably been more famous than any university for the insularity of its programs, is undertaking this, is a terribly important signal to the entire research community," said Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C.

The restructuring in science research, which would probably lay the groundwork for more sweeping changes under a new president, is already controversial. Some Harvard scientists fear that new departments would not maintain the same academic standards as today's departments.

Others worry that in seeking to stay on the leading edge, the university will devote too many resources to scientifically fashionable areas.

"Regenerative medicine is a very important arena, but it may not be the most important problem facing us in terms of the huge and potentially dramatic changes in our global climate and environment," said Harvard zoologist Farish A. Jenkins Jr.

But other faculty members are eager for changes. In the draft report released last July, a group of faculty proposed reorienting the university's scientific administration, to emphasize collaboration, interdisciplinary research, and encouragement of younger faculty and undergraduates.

Changes were made in a final version of the report, released last month, in response to criticism from faculty who attended town-hall style meetings, according to Dr. Nancy C. Andrews, who is one of the report's authors and is the dean for basic sciences and graduate studies at Harvard Medical School. For example, she said, the science and engineering planning committee, approved by the corporation yesterday, now serves to advise the president and provost, instead of making final decisions itself, she said.

Even so, the creation of the new body, formally called the Harvard University Science and Engineering Committee, marks a dramatic change. In the past, the university's deans and department chairs planned the university's broad research strategy largely by themselves. That process will continue, but the new committee will take over planning for interdisciplinary research. In a letter to the faculty last night, interim president Derek C. Bok asked for faculty nominations to the new planning committee.

The corporation also asked Bok and Provost Dr. Steven E. Hyman to put together plans for the new stem cell biology department by spring, when the governing board would like to vote on its creation. The fast moving science of stem cells has brought a renaissance in the study of how organisms develop, and also raised hopes of new therapies to help organs and body parts -- such as a diseased heart or damaged spinal cord -- to regenerate.

Stem cell research is also an example of how interdisciplinary science has become, scientists say. For example, engineers are working with biologists to find ways to use stem cells in treatments.

The corporation did not name other areas of interdisciplinary science it would like pursued.

Devising the university's science strategy will be one of the most important tasks facing Harvard's new president. At least two people on the short list being considered for the post are scientists, including Hyman. Harvard is expected to name its next president within weeks.

The university plans to commit more money to the effort, according to Hyman.

"It is a down payment on a longer-term investment in science and engineering," he said.

Gareth Cook can be reached at cook@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES