Six lessons from Iran for strengthening cross-disciplinary research

By Reza Dehnavieh

Reza Dehnavieh (biography)

How can universities in countries which have centralised and traditional discipline-based systems encourage cross-disciplinary research and education?

Here I describe lessons from the work of the Institute for Futures Studies in Health, which is an Iran-based organization specializing in foresight activities in Iran’s health system. The Institute is affiliated with Kerman University of Medical Sciences, and was launched in 2012. The Institute utilizes knowledge management in combination with the development of a more desirable future as the key concept at the core of its identity and follows four main goals:

  1. evidence-based decision-making,
  2. networking among stakeholders within and outside the health sector,
  3. developing capabilities and empowerment of stakeholders, and
  4. outlining strategic perspectives on health.

Lessons Learned

Institute leaders have learned six lessons about generating social progress, at least in the context of Iran.

Lesson #1: Minimize the formal structures of our organization and the associated government bureaucracy and use virtual networks for effective contribution of experts at different levels.

We work under the supervision of the Iranian Ministry of Health, whose structure is bureaucratic and restricts our ability to be agile. We try to stay away from these bureaucratic processes as much as possible. For example, it is very difficult to recruit personnel in the centralized structure of the ministry, so we try to attract personnel who have already been effectively involved in our research projects. We also maintain relationships with members of our institute who emigrated from Iran and use their help virtually.

Lesson #2: Use the advantage of cross-disciplinary work by creating a dynamic and attractive framework for those who may have very different knowledge, skills, and experience.

There are seven research centers in the institute, and there are 15 research chairs, with those holding the chairs drawn from different centers, thus aiding cross-center cooperation. The activities of the institute are mainly defined around solving problems, with each problem involving several research centers and research chairs.

Lesson #3: Translate real questions of the country into tangible research topics and encourage the Ministry to support (financially and non-financially) those researchers with motivation and knowledge to address these questions.

We regularly host visits of managers of Iran’s health system, and in these visits, in addition to listening to their challenges and questions, we also raise issues that we think are important to them. In this regard, we pay attention to both the demand and the need.

Lesson #4: Remove silos between research, teaching, and practice, particularly at the post-graduate level.

Separation of research, education and practice in the traditional curriculum of colleges and universities in low-income countries is common. Medical education in Iran is under the supervision of the Ministry of Health. There are separate departments for education and research, and one of the negative effects of this separation is that education and health research are not related to each other. We aim to reduce the gap between research and teaching by welcoming professors and students from different fields into our projects and have recently also independently started student admission in our institute.

Lesson #5: Enhance futures thinking in order to better understand the future and facilitate and leverage the use of opportunities.

The future is full of opportunities and threats, and future-oriented projects have great potential for interdisciplinary work. When different disciplines focus on future issues and problems, they understand that they must work with other disciplines to take advantage of opportunities and deal with threats. A case in point is the impact of artificial intelligence, where various disciplinary experts are working with experts in artificial intelligence. At our institute, we recently formed a national, future-focused network of 200 students, who are from various fields of medical sciences, to work on 30 emerging topics such as aging, emerging technologies, climate change, and social issues.

Lesson #6: Enhance the creativity and skills needed to strengthen everyone’s capabilities, which will lead to better service delivery outcomes.

Empowering researchers and students to think differently has a significant impact on their creativity. We have established a win-win rule among different research chairs to ensure mutual support for different projects that increases synergies, staff collaboration and job satisfaction. Key topics in this regard are the teaching of cooperative methods, gamification, and future literacy. For example, several games have been created in our institute and taken up in other organizations.


The institutionalizing of knowledge management in combination with futures studies and its interrelated concepts in the Institute for Futures Studies in Health may be a good practical example for other research institutes in how to actively involve many disciplines in a collaborative approach to maximize cross-disciplinary research.

What do you think? Does our experience resonate with yours? Do you have different or additional lessons to share?

To find out more:

Haghdoost, A. A., Dehnavieh, R., Feyzabadi, V. Y., Mehrolhassani, M. H., Hekmat, S. N., Poursheikhali, A., Blanchet, K., Siddiqi, S., Sharifi, H. and Ramos, J. (2021). Exploring the Experience of a Knowledge-Based Organization in Developing Countries: A Case Study of the Institute for Futures Studies in Health in Iran. Journal of Futures Studies, 25, 4: 83-88. (Online – open access) (DOI):

Biography: Reza Dehnavieh PhD is Professor of Health Services Management at Kerman University of Medical Science in Kerman, Iran. He is director of the Health Foresight and Innovation Research Center in the Institute for Futures Studies in Health. His main interests include futures studies in health and resilience based on future methods, quality and safety in health care, change management and accreditation of health services.

6 thoughts on “Six lessons from Iran for strengthening cross-disciplinary research”

  1. Dear Jim
    Thank you for your very good comments. Regarding paying attention to the efforts of the organization’s staff, yes, exactly, that’s an important point. Creating a win-win situation can be very effective in the success of interdisciplinary activities, where everyone feels the achievement of collaborative efforts. Of course, creating such conditions is difficult and requires skill and a lot of energy in guiding people’s activities.

    Thank you again

  2. This article sheds light on a crucial aspect of Iran’s healthcare system, where medical education and research are integral components of the Ministry of Health’s comprehensive framework. The concept of integrating these two critical pillars of healthcare serves as an excellent foundation for fostering synergy between medical education and the healthcare delivery system.

    The lessons derived from the Institute for Futures Studies in Health highlight the importance of adaptability, collaboration, and forward-thinking in achieving cross-disciplinary success. Iran’s experience underscores the potential benefits of aligning medical research and education with healthcare services, ultimately improving the quality of healthcare delivery and patient outcomes.

    However, it’s essential to recognize that this integration, while promising, requires meticulous planning and precise policymaking. The successful implementation of such a model necessitates careful consideration of various factors, including resource allocation, curriculum design, and collaborative initiatives. Learning from Iran’s experience, we can appreciate the significance of effective planning and policy formulation in realizing the full potential of cross-disciplinary research and education in healthcare.

  3. Thank you Reza for posting these valuable lessons. I like the way in which the approaches you describe move the institute away from narrowing, prescriptive structures, and replace them with open knowledge sharing across what are often inhibiting boundaries. These non-prescriptive open-ended approaches allow for the emergence of ideas and solutions that are sadly often constrained out of germination. Emergence is Concept 3 in Ramalingam and colleagues’ Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Working Paper “Exploring the science of complexity: Ideas and implications for development and humanitarian efforts” –

  4. Thanks for the analysis and for the frank assessment. I look forward to reading the full article in Journal of Futures Studies.
    One aspect that you highlight is the need to as much as possible understand the cultures of the organizations that you invite and with whom you will collaborate. Many, but not all, organization members appreciate opportunities to collaborate. Highlighting those and similar benefits may facilitate your recruitment challenges.
    Clearly, you have a solutions-oriented approach which also is an attractive benefit.
    I especially admired your liberal use of foresight practice and suggest different organizational members can provide different foci–alternative futures–for scenario development and analysis and for more diverse strategies.
    Gamification, which can be the business and organizational equivalents of war games, can be a place to stress test scenarios and strategies.
    Thank you for your work and for sharing it.


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