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Lessons from the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley

“Berkeley is less than the sum of its parts.”

My first graduate faculty professor stated this quote, the one I most keep in mind from my first day of graduate faculty. By transferring from aerospace engineering to research in international poverty and improvement in Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group (ERG), I knew I ought to anticipate a nontraditional coaching program, and I was hungry to dive into the unknown. What I didn’t anticipate was for my new professor to drop a revelation I’d dwell on for years.

Later I might come throughout Gestalt principle, where I assume my professor adopted his quote. Gestalt principle was established by 1920s psychologists who studied how humans develop and keep perceptions in our chaotic world, and the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka infamously said “the whole is other than the sum of its parts.” The parable of the blind men and the elephant portrays this concept properly; in the story, males fervently argue from their restricted perspectives about the state of the entire animal. Clearly, my professor acknowledged that even the sage departments at Berkeley needed a special perspective.


The Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. Supply: Wikimedia Commons

I knew from day one the ERG program was a particular place. At this time, as a Ph.D. graduate from the program, I do know ERG’s model holds lessons for reshaping how we research our world’s problems.

Why Interdisciplinarity?

Intellectual, social, and technological issues of this age are increasingly multi-pronged, evolving, complicated, and precarious. My very own doctoral research is a direct instance: I researched how innovation is being practiced all through worldwide improvement. This matter intersects with countless disciplines, from creating merchandise and providers in international well being, to creating distinctive greater schooling and economic insurance policies across the African continent, to questioning the human rights influences of an electronics manufacturer’s provide chains by way of coltan mining. To review these issues, I wanted to coach throughout disciplines to know the entire image.

Though combining disciplines could be troublesome, its rewards are many. Scholars of interdisciplinarity argue that methodological pluralism, i.e. the capacity for researchers to apply numerous methods of systematic understanding relying on the wants of the research, has many advantages. It could actually assist maintain organic and cultural variety, it promotes participation and decentralization, it prevents specialists in a single self-discipline from making selections with out consulting specialists from the subject who know totally different penalties, and it helps to create frameworks to raised understand relationships between international events and native wants. Moreover, college students and researchers can study to ensure their analysis applies extra broadly to society, they will supply alternatives for brand spanking new research directions inside disciplines, and they will spread their college’s talents to deal with complicated and pressing points.

Countless packages worldwide are adopting interdisciplinarity by creating collaborative research, by educating programs with professors in a number of disciplines, and by forming sectoral institutes on subjects with specialists from many fields. Nevertheless, many of these packages only help commensurable interdisciplinary research; they stitch collectively fields that share comparable questions, values, and ways of understanding. Mechanical Engineering and Biochemistry, as an example, are traditionally commensurable fields. Nevertheless, the really broad questions, like my dissertation question which explored the progress of design and innovation in the direction of addressing international poverty, requires us to productively investigate subjects from diverging factors of view. How may we feasibly create an area the place an engineer, an anthropologist, an ecologist, and more can contribute, critique, and create?

How Did ERG Begin?

The Energy and Resources Group (ERG) started in 1969, when Dr. C. Okay. (Ned) Birdsall, a plasma physicist in Berkeley’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Pc Sciences, initiated a seminar collection that addressed the useful resource bases, technical requirements, environmental penalties, and economic and social implications of other power futures. The seminar collection convened great minds in anthropology, biology, city and regional planning, regulation, physics, political science, and public policy. The group was drawn collectively by a collective mission to know how things labored from a natural, technical, and social perspective, and was compelled by a perception that they could have an effect on the future of schooling.

These curious researchers have been committed to bigger questions their particular person disciplines could not answer by themselves. The interactions have been respectful, they examined their assumptions about different disciplines’ analysis and information, and they started to type questions outdoors the realm of their house disciplines. Slowly, the school members’ values, expertise, and “activist-scholar” spirits motivated the need for a graduate program where young students could possibly be educated in working towards interdisciplinarity.

So started ERG, which employed its first school member—the first school position in Berkeley’s historical past to reside totally in an interdisciplinary unit—in November of 1972. Over four many years, ERG has redefined how eco­log­i­cal, social, and technological prob­lems are understood by navigating many tra­di­tion­ally sep­a­fee dis­ci­pli­nary cul­tures. It at present houses eight core school and 140 associates across the campus, about 60 or 70 grad college students per yr, and 500+ alumni spread throughout 28 nations.

Identical to ERG’s founders, students in ERG purpose to know the massive picture. ERG students take core programs that cross disciplines (power and society, quantitative international environmental problems, and understanding interdisciplinarity as a subject) whereas taking core disciplinary courses throughout the campus. The scholars conduct an interdisciplinary analysis challenge while interacting with their colleagues to crystallize, implement, and current their work to the world. The students also train and study from other students’ expertise and views, integrate themselves into the many matter areas throughout Berkeley’s campus, and achieve new disciplinary foundations from which to draw.

Over time, ERG has not only turn out to be engaging to interdisciplinary thinkers, however ERG students and school turn out to be a conduit via which different disciplines can discover the interstices of their own disciplines. As an example, ERG has over 140 affiliated school throughout campus who’ve labored with college students on countless research, packages, and analysis tasks.

ERG researchers have additionally develop into skilled specialists on the international stage; for example, Dr. John Holdren, the aforementioned first interdisciplinary professor in ERG, served President Obama as the senior advisor for science and know-how points, and Dr. Dan Kammen and Dr. Richard Norgaard have been authors for different iterations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Local weather Change.

What Can We Study From ERG?

ERG develops a cadre of lively globally-conscious students who feel snug in collaboration and adaptation, who draw from the foundations of systemic considering, and who goal to comprehend the vision of a just and sustainable planet. So, how can others study from the model of this group? I don’t argue that each institution should mirror ERG’s actual strategy, but I do consider every establishment can study from this fifty-year experiment. Fortuitously, Dr. Richard Norgaard provides a couple of tips for those keen on following ERG’s strategy.


Establish a fame for recruiting, embracing and enhancing the strengths of very shiny, experienced college students.

Although there isn’t a recipe of what makes an ideal ERG scholar, they need to mirror ERG values and vision. By recruiting activist-scholars that, of their distinctive approach, contribute to the tradition of the ERG area, they inject new lifeblood into the group that draws impassioned college students, researchers, and professors to help distinctive research and research.

Develop a practice of shared studying and disciplinary respect.

In contrast to other disciplines, students in ERG don’t unilaterally adopt traditionalized canons from sage professors in a secure self-discipline. As an alternative, the studying is collaborative and students centered. Develop spaces where students can construct on each other in sudden ways.

Build the help of departments and disciplinary school.

Though many school see the value of interdisciplinary areas, others may be off-put by its presence. It’s to be expected; productive students and professionals are drawn to interdisciplinary spaces because they see a scarcity of fit in their ‘home’ disciplines, where traditionalists may really feel proper at house. Nevertheless, creating relationships with traditionalists helps to take care of progressive analysis, advise wandering college students, and develop extra advocates for the program across campus. ERG does this by adopting a broad affiliate school program that researchers can be a part of once they see areas for alignment, and by offering assets for a rotating chair place, so professors from totally different departments and expertises can home professors at ERG for a restricted time period.

Guarantee students take rigorous programs in disciplines outdoors of their residence area of research.

To see the function of interdisciplinarity, ERG trains college students in the foundations of the fields from which ERG attracts. By studying the axioms, expertise, information, and culture of disciplines, the scholar can then study what every area contributes—and lacks—to understanding the world. At ERG, every scholar will get coaching in at least three fields; during my training I discovered innovation and design, evaluation, and international improvement so as to clearly understand how every group contributed to social change.

Assign interdisciplinary school to go the program’s core.

Although the students are the coronary heart and muscle of the program, the school is the skeleton. Professors like Dr. Isha Ray, with a Ph.D. in economics who focuses on water, sanitation, and social science analysis, and Dr. Lara Kueppers, an interdisciplinary environmental scientist whose analysis focuses on ecological responses and feedbacks to climate change, supply deep expertise in navigating the educational in-betweens. Educational trailblazing requires adaptive and strong mentorship from a diverse and evolving professoriate.

Encourage students to initiate their own analysis.

Many graduate packages are glorified apprenticeships; by adopting the tasks, the methods, and the worldviews of their professors, many students solely grow to be refracted photographs of their advisors. At ERG, they welcome scholar trailblazing. Although tasks may be leaner and less institutionally supported, the students grow to be stronger leaders of their own research—which impacts the tasks and disciplines ERG conduct after college students make their mark.

Spur the core school to remain lively in world issues.

ERG was founded as an institution that aims to ask massive inquiries to provoke actual change. They testify earlier than legislative our bodies, they provoke coverage statements and serve on science advisory boards of businesses. In doing so, they move the needle and spread the value of interdisciplinary work, while motivating students to deliver influence in their own method, in the direction of their very own educational passions.


As distinctive as ERG is, it started in the similar method of many disciplines by way of historical past: with a notion that the present buildings not match the scale and nature of the problems we have now to deal with. That notion gestated into communication, which grew right into a group, which engineered an infrastructure that now seeks to spark international change. Now, packages worldwide with totally different foundations can study from ERG’s model to construct rigorous interdisciplinarity.

After studying from numerous researchers and professionals throughout the globe, I finally perceive why those first words stuck with me in the first place: like Berkeley, the world must discover ways to understand and connect its elements. We will stay up to our historic inheritance, to see the huge picture, and incite change via radical collaboration, respectfully trustworthy inquiry, and transformational change.

Featured Picture: Protests at the University of California, Berkeley. Supply: Energy and Resources Group Web site

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