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The Interdisciplinary Mission of Bielefeld University

The concept of interdisciplinarity (and the related trans- and multidisciplinary concepts) draws on the decisive idea of categorizing the sciences according to disciplines that has shaped the history of higher education since the 19th century. However, the aim is to modify this categorization. Disciplines are formed partly by the career profiles of graduates and the corresponding degree programmes (e.g., physicians, lawyers, and computer scientists) and partly by the integrative powers of the theoretical principles and methods within a specific field (e.g., physics, sociology). Traditionally, both contribute not only to the professional identity of scientists and academics but also to the institutional integrity of their subject. However, the associated tendencies to define borders are no longer an appropriate approach to the problems facing science and society in today's world. The interdisciplinary mission aims to enhance the ability of academic disciplines to process complex problem fields going beyond their own individual borders. Interdisciplinarity is not directed against the disciplines, but exploits the divides between theoretically oriented basic research and problem-oriented applications. The problems themselves may come from contexts either within or outside of science. A key task of the University is then to exploit the tensions arising from these divides by developing new academic fields and potential applications. This calls for exceptional investments in interdisciplinary research cooperations and degree profiles. However, the most important precondition for success is the commitment of the academics themselves, and this is something that can be promoted by a culture of interdisciplinary communication. Interdisciplinary communication is neither a quality of science nor a research method, but a way of seeking new approaches to assessing and describing problems that uses the different perspectives and knowledge inventories of the disciplines. Interdisciplinary cooperation is a form of planned coordination of different subject competencies in order to find new approaches for both research and the integration of knowledge. The report on the new University specializations contains a number of examples of interdisciplinary research. These reveal that the potential benefits of an interdisciplinary approach do not lie in overcoming differences between specializations but in coordinating them. Differences in theoretical terminology, methods, and orientations will not diminish in the future, and their synthesis still remains an ideal. As a result, the strong effort invested in cooperation always needs to be evaluated in terms of its efficiency.

Interdisciplinarity does not just emerge through the pressure exerted by problems external to science, but also through the exchange of methods and ideas within the sciences. This exchange (cross-fertilization) has a long history. However, there are also numerous examples showing how disciplinary constraints may narrow perspectives. By establishing interdisciplinary research centres and degree programmes, a university with an interdisciplinary perspective adopts the mission of encouraging an open attitude towards and a genuine interest in the methods and ideas from other lines of research.

Interdisciplinarity, Training, and Professional Expertise

Individuals with professional academic qualifications are increasingly expected to possess abilities based not only on subject knowledge but also on interdisciplinary communication, teamwork, the management of complex tasks, and expertise. These qualifications can be imparted by setting up interdisciplinary degree programmes and postgraduate qualifications as well as getting students involved in interdisciplinary research fields and projects. Increasingly, students are shaping their own studies in an interdisciplinary way. The future task of the University will be to credit study achievements made in different degree programmes, and to continuously inform students about possible courses and opportunities beyond their first phase of study. Moreover, the University will increasingly have to provide further and continuing education facilities to meet the needs of business and administration. Demand will focus not only on the latest research findings, but also on new contributions to analysing problems, to systematically assessing complex relationships, and to evaluating experience.

The University continues to be one of the most important locations for reflection on society. However, compared to the mass media and specialized institutions, it will only succeed in making the best use of its immense resources of disciplinary expertise when it also understands how to encourage these resources to express themselves in an interdisciplinary way. In times when the insecurity and uncertainty of change are encroaching on many domains of life - not least due to the dynamics of knowledge and technology - the University can be expected to contribute to understanding these changes and processing their ambivalences. A culture of interdisciplinary communication is a key feature that helps it to meet these expectations.