Cross-border feats: Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University is breaking boundaries in Asia

By Bertil Andersson and Tony Mayer, Nanyang Technological University

Interdisciplinary Research | Volume 3, Issue 2 – 2013

Crossing a border is a recognizable act, one that requires intent and effort. This applies not only to borders between countries, cultures, and traditions, but also to academic disciplines. And while borders are often places of friction and conflict, they also lead to the cross-fertilization that has been crucial to mankind’s development.

Today, when it comes to knowledge, interdisciplinary (i.e., cross-border) interactions help move the frontiers of science and technology. The gains are not easy to achieve, partly because we all come from strong disciplinary backgrounds and work within rigid academic and administrative structures. But by changing mind-sets and creating new interactions, we can open universities to new ways of working and generate excitement about interdisciplinary possibilities.

Young institutions such as Nanyang Technological University (NTU) may have advantages in this realm; their structures are not as constrained as those of older institutions. By promoting interdisciplinarity within a Humboldtian ethos, combining research and education, young institutions can be at the forefront of change.

Rapidly developing Asian universities: The NTU example

Nanyang Technological University in Singapore is emblematic of Asian universities that are emerging as new poles of learning, competing strongly with their American and European counterparts. Built on the site of a former institution created for the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, NTU received its charter in 1991. It became a research intensive institution in 2005, when Singapore began a determined effort to push into the top echelon of research and gave autonomy to its universities. The country has embraced the knowledge-based economic model and made huge investments in research, much of which has been directed toward universities. NTU has benefited from this policy and is now ranked second in the world among young universities (those less than 50 years old) and 8th overall in Asia (QS World University Rankings 2013).

Originally a teaching university focused on engineering, NTU remains dominant in that field, but it has expanded to include business, natural sciences, the arts, humanities and social sciences. It can be compared with Imperial College London, with which it recently partnered to create an innovative medical school that links the discipline of medicine with the strong engineering bases at both institutions.

The changes initiated within NTU include the Board of Trustees giving top management the power to really manage. This led to a rigorous review, based on the highest international standards, of all appointments, promotions and tenure. As a result, approximately one quarter of the faculty were denied tenure. This salutary shock to the system, along with the new flow of competitive funding to Singapore universities, gave NTU the ability to recruit top talent from across the world, both at senior levels (to nucleate and strengthen interdisciplinary research groups) and in its young research faculty. These measures have made NTU very competitive in obtaining research funding and made it the first choice of an increasing and substantial number of Singapore’s best incoming university students.

The recruiting of mainly non-Singaporean talent, a necessary step given Singapore’s small size, provided NTU with an exceptional asset and enabled its rapid advance. Singapore needed this external recruitment, not only in NTU but in the country’s other academic institutions, to kick-start research. Now, to ensure its sustainability, Singapore must make a serious effort to build up the local talent base and increase the proportion of nationals engaged in high-level interdisciplinary research.

NTU’s advance has been marked by the award of two national Research Centres of Excellence (RCEs), each led by world renowned experts. The Earth Observatory of Singapore emphasizes multidisciplinary earth sciences (seismology, tectonics and volcanology), while the Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering acts as an interface between engineering and fundamental life sciences, including genomics, in the study of bio-films. Both have strong interdisciplinary approaches.

Another factor is NTU’s international profile. Some 70 nationalities are represented in its faculty, staff and (especially) Ph.D. students, which makes NTU the world’s fifth most international academic institution (QS rankings). This international base is a strength in the pursuit of interdisciplinary research.

NTU works collaboratively with institutions across the globe, based on mutual academic esteem and common research interests. This trend includes occasionally establishing a physical research presence in another country. Singapore has encouraged this trend through the National Research Foundation’s Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Expertise (CREATE) initiative. Through CREATE, NTU has established a number of collaborations, including one on electromobility with the Technical University of Munich.

Finally, NTU has worked closely with commerce and industry in intimate research collaborations. This includes providing laboratory space and, most importantly, involving the industrial partner in supervising graduate students.

Developing an interdisciplinary strategy

Remarkably, in less than a decade, NTU has moved firmly into the top tier of academia. From this base, it is promoting an ethos of interdisciplinarity in its research and teaching. The university has developed both a thematic and structural strategy based on interdisciplinarity — the latter being the delivery instrument for the former.

After widespread consultation, NTU established a number of thematic areas to provide an interdisciplinary focus to its research. The areas had to be broad enough to encompass and attract the appropriate mix of specialities to achieve the research objectives and attract funding. NTU also created a number of interdisciplinary and pan-university research institutes that anchor the thematic areas.

“Sustainability” is the largest of these themes, bringing together the two RCEs with two pan-university research institutes in energy and water: the Energy Research Institute @ NTU (ERIAN) and Nanyang Environmental Water Research Institute (NEWRI). Together, these major initiatives and structures address key challenges facing the country and the region.

A second theme, “Future Healthcare,” is constructed around the new medical school run jointly by Imperial College London and NTU. New challenges facing healthcare require the engineering and medical strengths of both partner institutions to promote, for example, advances in robotic surgery or new drug delivery systems. The goal is to combine business studies, engineering and economics with medicine and the life sciences to address the increasing needs of public health systems.

Another broad area of interdisciplinarity is “East Meets West,” characterized by Singapore’s intrinsic strengths that occur as a result of its being the crossroads between the East and West and the halfway point between China and India. It is exemplified by the “Mayors Programme” for training government officials from China who regard Singapore as “the West,” and the Farmleigh programme of business studies where Irish students come to Singapore to study in “the East.”

Perhaps the most advanced endeavour in interdisciplinarity relates to complexity science. NTU has created an Institute of Complexity Science, a unique initiative in Asia, which is linked to the renowned Santa Fe Institute in the US. Singapore is ideally placed to provide a data source and test bed for new ideas for this initiative focused on urban studies.

Challenges to overcome

Strategies and structures do not automatically lead to greater interdisciplinarity and open-mindedness. There are strong countervailing pressures, the foremost of which is academia’s strong disciplinary tradition and its resulting conservatism. In every large and complex organization, such as a university, there will always be close (and closed) communities of thought and tradition that are difficult to break down.

Thus, interdisciplinarity has to operate in a complex matrix that creates a tension between the various disciplines and structures, with strong calls on one’s allegiance. Joint appointments are one example where such tensions can occur; others can happen between traditional schools and pan-university endeavours such as NTU’s thematic priorities.

As university leaders and managers, we must be aware of such tensions, especially in matters of promotion and tenure. It is only natural that faculty will tend to work within academic assessment structures when breaking away means risking being considered “non-mainstream” by reviewers. Similar attitudes are seen in the peer review process of funding agencies, where interdisciplinarity struggles for recognition against more traditional, “safer” research areas. This innate conservatism may be the greatest challenge to interdisciplinarity, and it is here where Asia may lead the way in overcoming such attitudes.

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