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Tuesday, March 23, 2010 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter


IBS: A Role Model for Interdisciplinary Research

New Home Unites Human Behavior Scientists
Dick Jessor, Distinguished Professor of Behavioral Science

Editor’s note: The Institute of Behavioral Science, founded in 1957, has always been ahead of its time as a role model for interdisciplinary research. The new 50,000-square-foot IBS building will unite researchers now spread across eight campus locations and a downtown Boulder office building. The campus celebrated a “topping-off” for the new building on March 12. It will be completed this fall.

The extraordinary accomplishments of science and technology toward the end of the 20th century – whether the unraveling of the human genome, or the discovery of plate tectonics, or the construction of the space station – represent remarkable advances in our understanding of the natural world. What has become exquisitely clear at the opening of the 21st century is the need for comparable advances in gaining a grasp on the social world, the world of human behavior and social life.

The great challenges of the future for all societies across the globe implicate socially organized human behavior. Among them are the sustainable use of the planet’s natural resources, the reduction or elimination of chronic and infectious disease, the burden of population increase and concentration in urban settings, the burgeoning of conflict across ethnic and religious boundaries, the mitigation of inescapable natural hazards, the pervasiveness of poverty and the growing disparity between rich and poor in both the developed and the developing world, the lengthening of life expectancy in much of the world’s population, and the life-compromising consequences of youth violence, substance abuse, and unintended pregnancy.

None of these challenges can be met by technological solutions alone. In every case, what is essential is an advance in understanding of human behavior in social context and thoughtful application of that socially relevant knowledge.

This is the mission of the Institute of Behavioral Science (IBS), and its purview includes all of the challenges listed above.

The Institute was established to advance basic knowledge about problems of societal importance. From the very outset it was clear that no single social science discipline alone had adequate reach to grasp the entirety and complexity of such problems. It was essential to bring together the divergent social science disciplines.

That coalescence yielded a new interdisciplinary – or transdiciplinary – orientation to societal problems, namely, what is now called behavioral science. A new field of inquiry, it relies on collaboration across disciplinary perimeters. Indeed, behavioral science is located at the intersection of the traditional social science disciplines.

Since its establishment 53 years ago, the Institute of Behavioral Science has been remarkably successful in producing societally relevant knowledge and in promoting its application in social policy and in program implementation and evaluation.

As its reputation grew within Colorado as well as nationally and internationally, and as its extra-mural funding support and expenditures accelerated, IBS was forced to expand from the single building in which it began its half-century life into additional, small buildings dispersed across campus.

Although such expansion made possible greater contributions to socially relevant knowledge, it also has compromised the opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration and the informal and spontaneous intellectual sharing so essential to the IBS mission. In the new IBS building, all of the behavioral scientists will be brought under one roof.

Each of the five current research programs in IBS – Environment and Society, Health and Society, Political and Economic Change, Population, and Problem Behavior – is organized to produce new knowledge and understanding about the particular social-problem domain it has focused
on, and it does so by including faculty from multiple social science disciplines. It has, in addition, become increasingly clear over the years that the five separate problem domains have, themselves, considerable points of overlap.

For example, problems of environmental degradation also implicate issues of political and economic change, and key concerns of problem behavior such as unintended pregnancy cross over with issues of health and of population. The IBS mission has increasingly drawn attention to these and many other areas of overlap and to the need for cross-program collaboration.

With the five research programs currently housed in nine different buildings, such cross-program collaboration and interchange is compromised. This is another key reason for bringing together the IBS faculty and programs.

All of the IBS programs confront problems of society that are salient in contemporary life and solutions to which are of urgent necessity. The recent Nobel award for calling attention to climate change and the need for a reduction of carbon emissions poses an urgent problem that cannot be solved by technological fixes without changes in socially-organized human behavior, namely, in resource conservation and energy consumption.

Understanding the rise of religious fundamentalism and the attendant threat of terrorist acts is yet another urgent issue on the world’s agenda, one that only a behavioral science perspective can hope to illuminate. Deforestation, or the movement of large segments of the populations from rural to unprepared urban areas, or bullying and other violence in schools with its impact on learning and human capital development – all of these are in urgent need of understanding.

These are some of the issues that have animated the work of the scholars and researchers in the Institute of Behavioral Science over the decades. A new building to house the entire institute will foster work on these urgent problems of societal, and indeed, global importance. By bringing the scholars and their research programs together in a single, cohesive, collaborative, intellectual community, we intend to create a synergy that will amplify and accelerate the contributions of the Institute of Behavioral Science to human welfare in the United States and abroad.

Dick Jessor has been a CU-Boulder faculty member for more than 58 years and was instrumental in the founding of the Institute of Behavioral Science in 1957. He was the IBS director for 21 years. He is a research professor of behavioral science, director of the IBS Health and Society program, and professor of psychology emeritus.

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