By Reza Dehnavieh
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:
- evidence-based decision-making,
- networking among stakeholders within and outside the health sector,
- developing capabilities and empowerment of stakeholders, and
- outlining strategic perspectives on health.
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): https://doi.org/10.6531/JFS.202106_25(4).0007
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.