The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Crossing borders in the sciences

April 20, 2012


In an essay in this month’s Scientific American, Alice Gast, president of Lehigh University, makes a case for the benefits of international collaboration in the sciences:

It has become cliche that great discoveries come from interdisciplinary thinking… [F]ew realize how much science is energized when team members have different cultural approaches to problem solving. International diversity is just as important as diversity of discipline.

She notes that years ago when she began a collaboration with researchers in Mexico and Germany, the “approaches seemed irreconcilable:”

…my Mexican cohorts wanted to relax the rules to make the mathematics more tractable and later put htem back in. This set our German friends on edge. They kept reminding us of the constraints and the boundary conditions to make sure we did not stray too far. My American training left me somewhere in the middle: I worried about the constraints but was tentatively willing to relax them.

…The need to reach across national boundaries places greater demands on scientists. While scientists become more specialized as they proceed through their studies, broadening and collaborative experiences make them better able to “think differently” and “connect the dots” to discover new things. Ultimately it leads to better science.

I think it’s important to take note of this observation. Today, more students than ever are experiencing international learning experiences through study abroad and internships — roughly 40% of the students in liberal arts institutions now study abroad (in IR, that number is somewhere around two-thirds of the students).

In the sciences, and in physics and chemistry in particular, the number of students with some type of international learning experience or collaboration at the undergraduate level is substantially lower — often well below 10%. Most undergraduate science students are reluctant to study abroad because of fears they won’t land positions in research labs, or get into graduate school or medical school. Too many science departments and faculty reinforce this view by stressing earlier professional tracking — even in liberal arts institutions. Not all science students would necessarily benefit from international learning experiences, but if there is merit to international collaboration, it makes sense to cultivate these experiences at the beginning of specialized science education.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.