Narrowing the Field

In an era of federal cuts and tight budgets, some interdisciplinary programs face an uncertain future.

November/December 1996

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Narrowing the Field


Growing up in Los Alamos, N.M., I was surrounded by science. My father is a physicist, and all my friends had at least one parent employed by the biggest industry in town, Los Alamos National Laboratory.

To children living in the birthplace of the atomic bomb, science is much more than a class in school. It is part of the regular conversation at home, a frequent subject of local newspaper articles and, eventually, a popular career choice. Every year, we took field trips to the science museum and had some of the original Manhattan Project pioneers as classroom visitors.And it never once crossed our minds that we wouldn't participate in the science fair.

I didn't realize how science and technology had shaped my childhood until last spring. I was reporting a story for the Daily on Stanford's interdisciplinary program in Science, Technology and Society (STS). The School of Engineering had just announced it wouldn't renew degree-granting authority for STS, a decision which subsequently has been reversed. I interviewed one of the program's founders, Walter Vincenti. After the conversation, he asked me a little about myself, and I got to talking about my background. It was after that conversation that I understood the value of a program that studies the interrelationship of different disciplines.

Twenty-five years ago, several Stanford professors recognized the gaps left by traditional departments and developed the first inter-disciplinary programs. Some 9 percent of undergraduates now choose one of these 20 programs as a major. For the most part, these students are unwilling to limit themselves to individual disciplines and want to look at the connections between life and society. The programs borrow faculty from many departments in the Schools of Engineering and Humanities and Sciences. One of the programs, human biology, is now one of the most popular majors at Stanford.

But now these programs face an uncertain future. Founding professors are retiring, and younger professors are becoming less involved. In this period of shrinking resources, younger faculty prefer to remain where research money and tenure are more accessible. In fact, the University initially pulled the plug last April on STS due to a lack of faculty, not student interest. But when Vincenti helped start the program in 1971, he found plenty of willing faculty. They came from departments as diverse as mechanical engineering, biology, history and English. It was a period characterized by innovation, with money readily available to support new pursuits.

The STS program may have been saved from the chopping block, but other interdisciplinary tracks have not been as lucky. This year, the University shut down the Food Research Institute, merged two departments in the School of Engineering and recommended eliminating East Asian studies. At the sametime, the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of the world becomes evermore apparent, a fact that most Stanford graduates realize when they apply for their first jobs.

My hometown is a living experiment that exemplifies the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of society. The most brilliant physicists, computer scientists, chemists, biologists and engineers work at the laboratory. Politicians control the amount of money that flows to Los Alamos, and ultimately, the town's survival. Science and technology continue to shape the working order of the town.

Ironically, it is the interaction of science, technology and society that may have initially endangered the STS program at Stanford. With the end of the Cold War, STS and Los Alamos have suffered from lack of monetary and intellectual support. And yet, both still have much to contribute to the world.

Elizabeth Goldman is a junior majoring in history.

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