Practicing Interdisciplinarity: Challenges and Insights

Policy Analysis and
Studies of Technologies
Tomsk State University
*email address protected*

One of the fundamental pillars of innovation development for any country is qualified human resources. Fast advancement in innovation demands a flexible and responsive educational system, which could provide such resources. The real advancement in innovation occurs in interdisciplinary fields, which create exceptional requirements to personnel: not only to be professional in their fields but to be open-minded for new opportunities outside their area, and to be able to interact and collaborate with representatives of other fields. The ever-growing speed of new technologies and innovation emergence translates into such an important educational outcome as the skill to absorb new knowledge and inventively implement it. The academic sector and education system in particular, are conservative in a sense. It is especially true for Russia, where the vast majority of the institutions of higher education are public and are subject to the rules and regulations of the Ministry of Education and Science of Russian Federation. It makes an experience of starting a new educational program in the innovative interdisciplinary field a compelling case, which allows looking at the relationships of the academic sector, business, and government from the fresh perspective.

In 2017, the scientific and educational Center for Policy Analysis and Studies of Technologies (PAST-C) of Tomsk State University (Russia), in collaboration with the Siberian State Medical University (SSMU), and Maastricht University, launched an interdisciplinary master program “Innovations and Society: Science, Technology, and Medicine.” The program was unique for Russia due to its genuinely interdisciplinary configuration as by content, so institutionally. The idea of this Master program appeared from research and conferences devoted to the issues of innovation development. It became clear from the discussions that there were some problems in this area in Russia. One of them is that often “technicians” develop innovation and technologies almost never thinking of the society and groups that will benefit from them. They think of the customers as an average unit of consumption of innovation. This perception is in the style of marketing of the mid-twentieth century. Also, they do not pay attention to the context in which the customer will use this innovation. The practice to look at the context of use has long become a part of the business culture of many foreign companies. It is clear to them that technology and innovation need “social” support. In Russia, there are no qualified specialists who could provide such a vision. The Master program aimed to fill this gap. The idea of this program was supported by the European Union (Erasmus + Program) through the BIHSENA project1 and by the Potanin Foundation. Colleagues from the University of Maastricht (the Netherlands) and other partners from the BIHSENA project, provided expertise and assessment of the program.

The program goal was to give humanitarian competencies to two categories of people: specialists who work in the field of health, and “technicians” who work with innovations. Following this, there are two tracks inside the program. One is in the field of medical innovation, and the second, a broader one, is “techno-science.”

The basic courses of the program include ‘Management of innovations”; “Methods of data collection and research design for studies of social and technical processes”; “Analytical reading and academic writing”; and “Innovation and Society.”
Besides these basic compulsory courses, Master students can choose from two education tracks: management of innovations and research activities (“Technoscience”), and innovations in the field of health and medicine (“Innovation for Health”). The first track introduces the main concepts of STS; courses devoted to science and technology policy, and places of knowledge production (academic sector, industry, society). The track “Innovation and Health” contains the courses “Health governance,” “Integrative approaches to healthcare,” “Innovations for health,” and “Dilemmas of governance.”

Master students obtain the following knowledge and skills:

  1. to solve applied problems in various fields of science and technology development, including medicine;
  2. to identify the problems of innovation that exist at the level of institutions, public policy, and regulation;
  3. to develop strategies for the interaction of the laboratory or the company with other stakeholders of the innovation system.

Therefore, course content is arranged at the cross-section of various disciplines. Science, Technology, and Society (STS), Public Health, and Innovation Studies are among them.

Institutionally, the program is provided by two different types of institution: a classical university and a medical university. There are examples of interdisciplinary programs, developed by such universities before, but these are in related fields (pharma, nuclear medicine). The program “Innovations and Society: Science, Technology, and Medicine” is the first attempt to bring together humanitarian and medical educational fields.

The necessity for such a program appeared from understanding the emerging needs of universities, research institutes, and technology companies in the field of new knowledge creation and management. Professional communities of the real sector and academic sector2 articulated it as the request for specialists, who would be able to connect technological knowledge and innovation with understanding social and cultural contexts.

“To effectively “manage” innovation, it is not enough to be a talented innovator, a good manager or a professional. It is necessary to have a systematic understanding of the environment in which the development and commercialization of technologies and innovation take place, to be able to identify and coordinate the interests of actors involved in innovation processes, to be acceptable for the ultimate “end-user.” We train professionals, managers, analysts, and researchers of technological and innovative divisions of the academic and business sectors who can work with innovation of various types, including social innovation” (Innotomsk 2017).

The development and implementation of this Master program allowed discovering exciting challenges and unexpected obstacles, which demonstrate existing gaps in the readiness of the primary stakeholders of the innovation system to practice interdisciplinarity and collaboration to provide innovation development with needed human resources.
One of the challenges was to find a ‘place’ for such an interdisciplinary program in the official register of specialties and science disciplines, which are strictly defined in Russia and not flexible to include interdisciplinary. Interestingly, the innovation studies as they exist in the international scientific field, are not presented in the Russian Registry of Science Disciplines. In the educational area, there are educational programs called Innovatika. The term “Innovatika” appeared in publications of St.-Petersburg State Technological University in the 1980s. Initially, Innovatika was defined as knowledge of methodology and organization of innovative activity (Kolosov 1999). In due course, innovatika became mostly the management discipline, which resides at technical disciplines (IT, mechanical engineering, electronics, radiotechnics, and others), or inside economics and management. Thus, the social basis of any innovation, localization, acceptance by society, work with different social communities, are beyond the educational and professional space.

The Master Program “Innovations and Society: Science, Technology, and Medicine” with its focus on the cross-section of science, technology, and society, fits neither innovatika nor management. As a result, sociology became the ‘landing’ specialty of the program to fit educational standards and the registry of specialties. The graduates will get the degree and diploma of “Master in Sociology.” Besides the fact that this discipline does not reflect interdisciplinarity of the program, this became an obstacle for attracting people from life and natural sciences and the technical field to the program. The gap between “technicians” and “humanitarians” is still substantial in Russian regulative space. This state of affairs demands more effort to introduce such an interdisciplinary educational program to academic and even professional communities and to extend their understanding of innovation as the result of R&D and laboratory works only. Building communication and interaction with the business sector is one such effort. The involvement of professionals from business and industry was planned through their participation in the expertise of the program, providing assignments for the students, and the final examination. The business sector was considered one of the primary “customers” of the program graduates.

“While looking for such partners, we were faced with a problem, the distrust of the real sector to educational institutions. In Russia, it is a common belief that after graduation and getting a job, the former student must be retrained, because universities often do not give either practical skills or relevant knowledge to work in real life. That was why we needed an examination of the real sector. We wanted to understand the exact needs and requirements to the skills and knowledge our graduates should have to be successfully hired and effectively working” (22century 2018).

Building such a type of interaction with companies became a difficult task. At the moment, there are two students’ projects, which were “ordered” by one company and one organization of the non-profit sector. Among other types of collaborative activity with real sector and professional communities, there are medhack to be held in the local hospital to reveal innovative solutions to professional hospital routines; project to develop innovative practices for university library through implementation of participatory approach; and student’s research work to analyze funding strategies to implement technological innovation of the company.

It is the beginning of a steep path to form a new profession in the innovation field. Some reflections can be done from this experience. The new economy based on knowledge and innovation is coming beyond the triple helix of university-industry-state (Leydesdorff 2012). New actors, such as society, the non-profit organizations, mass media, and communities, form multiple helixes with much more complex communications and relations inside. Therefore, when talking about collaboration between these stakeholders, there is a need to understand how regimes, cultures, and routines of the stakeholders are open for practicing collaboration. The case of the interdisciplinary education program demonstrates this complexity and challenge.



BIHSENA – Bridging Innovation, Health and Society: educational capacity building in Eastern Europe Neighbourhood Area.
The data was obtained as part of the research projects done by the PAST-C.



Kolosov, V G. (1999) Fundamentals of Innovation: A Tutorial. St Petersburg. University of St Petersburg State Technical University. 69 p.
Leydesdorff, L. (2012) The Triple Helix, Quadruple Helix, …, and an N-Tuple of Helices: Explanatory Models for Analyzing the Knowledge-Based Economy? Journal of the Knowledge Economy 3: 25.
Tomsk will begin to train professionals of a new level in the field of innovation. Innotomsk Portal. 27.06.2017. Accessed 15.06.2018
Sociology plus technology is equal to … management of innovation! XXII Century Portal. 21.05.2018. Accessed 15.06.2018




Published by the Triple Helix Association  –  ISSN 2281-4515

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