Ahea/ACR Workshop on Interdisciplinary Consumer Research

Keith N. McFarland, Dean, College of Home Economics, University of Minnesota
ABSTRACT - Departmental goals and faculty reward systems oriented to department colleagues and activities often impede interdisciplinary efforts in research. Administrative leadership can provide positive reinforcement. Searches for interdisciplinary research funding require institutional, unit administrator and researcher cooperation. The field effort in home economics research is at a relatively underdeveloped stage.
[ to cite ]:
Keith N. McFarland (1978) ,"Ahea/ACR Workshop on Interdisciplinary Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 754-755.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 754-755


Administration and Funding of Interdisciplinary Consumer Research

Keith N. McFarland, Dean, College of Home Economics, University of Minnesota


Departmental goals and faculty reward systems oriented to department colleagues and activities often impede interdisciplinary efforts in research. Administrative leadership can provide positive reinforcement. Searches for interdisciplinary research funding require institutional, unit administrator and researcher cooperation. The field effort in home economics research is at a relatively underdeveloped stage.

An administrator new to a home economics program quickly becomes sensitive to interdisciplinary endeavor, since the field rationale focuses upon the interrelationship of man and the various aspects of his near environment. Undergraduate courses appear to reach across disciplines in various degree. Interdisciplinary research appears to be more honored in the abstract than in execution. To launch into interdisciplinary endeavor the researcher must form the relationships that permit planning across departmental lines and have the determination that overcomes the added burdens incurred by work outside the department or discipline.

Let's look at some administrative considerations relative to interdisciplinary research. Fred Harvey Harrington describes the department as a "major obstacle to change within American Colleges and Universities.'' [Harrington, Fred Harvey, "Structuring of Conventional Departments," from Academic Departments, ed. by Dean McHenry, Jossey-Bass Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, CA, 1977.] And, indeed, the typical departmental structure poses special problems to those seeking cross-disciplinary outlets. Department goals and individual researcher interest do not always coincide. Staffing needs may be met with choices more appropriate to the disciplinary concerns of the department than to the cross-disciplinary expressions fundamental to a mission-oriented institution. At a time when staff evaluation for tenure, promotion, and salary adjustment purposes is increasingly centered in departmental colleagues, the risks encountered by the cross-disciplinary worker operating "outside the pale," so to speak, are magnified. Seldom are two departments at the same stage of readiness to attack a problem of mutual concern. Other assignments or priorities lay claim to time and resources of those with willingness to work across lines. Those who work in interdisciplinary research must, in a sense, command two or more "languages." In crowded daily routines the time and energy required in setting meetings and in traveling across the campus to work with colleagues of another discipline may be just enough to quell the urge. Outlets for results may be less available for cross-disciplinary material, though this may be changing. The delicate question of who receives the credit in shared research can complicate the scene. When one has limited time for research, efficiency favors its use on matters close at hand. Because cross-disciplinary work may be interpreted as being peripheral to departmental objectives, the resources of the department may be less available for its promotion.

Some administrative considerations probably necessary to the conduct of interdisciplinary research include the following:

a) The department must be encouraged to sketch its objectives with sufficient breadth as to include interdisciplinary research as a completely appropriate and, indeed, an expected activity.

b) The department seminar and project review systems should encourage cooperative interchange with scientists in related disciplines. Joint discussions are useful in legitimizing joint endeavors.

c) Staff members should be asked to outline research intentions in annual reviews. Discussions attendant to these reviews can lend encouragement and support to new directions in research.

d) The faculty load must permit the use of reasonable blocks of time for research or for project development and proposal writing. Staff members can be encouraged to get out and make contacts, both professional and funding related. This should be expected behavior. Some travel funds must be available to bring the scientist face-to-face with the potential funding agency. It may be useful to consider redirecting funds presently used in attending society meetings to more focused visits to funding sources.

e) The resources of the institution should be utilized to identify possible sources of funding as a preliminary to follow-up visits by the researcher to the agency.

f) Interest in interdisciplinary research might well become a criterion in faculty recruitment.

g) Public or private funding agencies need to be made aware of problems of major public interest. Out of this aroused concern should come fiscal response to attractive research proposals. This is a continuing process, never ending.

Funding sources are in the eye of the beholder. Courage, aggressiveness and imagination do on occasion produce strange and wonderful results for the seeker of funds. The researcher in the land grant colleges may have access to Agricultural Experiment Station funds, both federal and state in origin. State funding (legislative specials) is most likely to relate to defined problems and those of interest to legislators who are very close to their constituencies. At the federal level the more comprehensive questions may be treated, and over time one might assume that more funding for consumer research will stem from federal or private than from state sources.

Funding agencies tend to put their money where there is power in program. This works to the disadvantage of new thrusts or of groups just moving into research endeavor. Experienced researchers note the need for "something to sell" in going to funding sources, this including defined rationale, pilot study results, and the promise of pay-off in ultimate outcomes. Here again the researcher's need for time for planning and for opportunities to meet with funding agencies is evident.

Your workshop planners were interested in the experience of the AHEA Commission of Family Research Act of 1975. The then Senator Walter Mondale had introduced the Family Research Act of 1975 (S2250), with intent to provide funding through the Cooperative State Research Service, USDA for research on the family and to provide assistance to land grant colleges of a kind and duration that would lead to the development of a larger corps of family researchers. It was the commission's role to assist in marshalling such support as we could for this legislation. The commission familiarized itself with the bill and met with the Senator and his staff with respect to language and interpretation. We reviewed our relationships with other interested organizations and agencies, began to structure support groups within each state through the various state Home Economics Associations, and gave thought to potential hearings on this legislation. It quickly became clear that we needed answers to several key questions before testimony could be given with confidence. What is the history of home economics research? What problems are attracting attention? What research would follow funding if the bill were to be enacted? What research of similar nature was being funded by other federal agencies? This information was not at hand.

Land grant college administrators of home economics were asked to report on research programs in progress and to note problems of interest, were funding to be available. Returns were fragmentary, but several interesting findings came to view:

a) Home economics researchers are few in number. A late inventory of researchers in Agricultural Experiment Stations in 1975 revealed only 153 scientist year equivalents in home economics research endeavor.

b) The majority of researchers reported investing but limited time in research. The majority of projects reported were of small scale. There was little indication of powerful thrusts in defined areas.

c) The research projects proposed, were funding to become available, were miscellaneous in nature, and not of a type that would arouse major sponsor support. There were few suggested projects of size and scope. Home economics researchers do, it appears, tend to "think small."

d) Little was known of the amount of home economics related research funded by other federal agencies.

The fate of the Family Research Act of 1975 (S2250) was sealed by the massive attack launched by various bodies upon the Child and Family Services Act, of which Senator Mondale was also a principal author. Because of the similarity in titles, it was likely that S2250 would, if pushed, attract a parallel attack from conservative groups, hence no hearings were held on S2250 and the bill received no action.

The need for more information on home economics research efforts did lead to the initiation of a study entitled "Home Economics Research Assessment, Planning and Projection" (HERAPP), this funded by the Cooperative State Research Service, USDA, in cooperation with the Association of Administrators of Home Economics and the Agricultural Research Policy Advisory Committee, USDA and NASULGC. The work was headed by S. J. Ritchey and Elizabeth Davis. From their efforts will come a listing of researchable problems, in priority order. So, too, will the study survey other sources of funding for home economics researchers.

It is quite clear that, in general, home economics researchers have not been aggressive in exploring sources of funding other than that of the Agricultural Experiment Stations. Sources appear to exist. A hasty survey of July and August, 1977 issues of Commerce Business Daily and the Federal Register, reveals 30 requests for proposals and grants in home economics related areas, from USOE, NIAA, NIDA, HEW, NIMH, DOL, PHS, and the U.S. Army. The more complete census being accomplished as a part of the HERAPP study will do much to guide home economists as they look to their research funding future.

The home economics profession has enjoyed some successes in influencing public policy in recent years, yet its history is one of reacting, rather than initiating. This climate is changing.

What lessons did the commission learn from its experience with the Family Research Act?

a) That a continuing relationship to funding sources needs to be developed and to be maintained over time,

b) that requests for legislative funding need to rest on a strong information base, be realistic, and promise information useful in dealing with questions held to be important by the funding sources,

c) that the faculty member needs time to plan, to develop projects and to follow leads to sources,

d) that the race goes not to the meek or the conservative,

e) that credibility of the petitioner grows out of action, and that research success breeds success.

Funding of public institutions of higher education increasingly rests upon measures of teaching load. In a future where research will be largely separately funded, the home economics researcher will have to be skillful in seeking research support. Preliminary results from HERAPP suggests that research funding relating to home economics interests is available from a number of Federal Agencies, but that the hone economics researcher has to this time concentrated largely upon funding from the CSRS, USDA. A more aggressive inquiry and request program is in order.