Arete Initiative draws faculty from across disciplines to examine big problems

The University's Arete Initiative, which encourages interdisciplinary research, has a name derived from the ancient Greek word for excellence in the fulfillment of human potential. Now in its third year, Arete is fulfilling its own potential-helping faculty and researchers at the University launch interdisciplinary projects that study solutions to global epidemics, world poverty and climate change.

"The ideal of the solitary genius making discoveries in a library or at a blackboard is being replaced," said Arete founder John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology. "In the 21st century, new ideas are more likely to be generated by teams of researchers collaborating on large-scale, system-level projects with global ramifications."

During the past academic year, 155 faculty members from 40 departments worked on 32 projects. Fourteen projects have been funded so far, 15 are still in development and 17 have reached the proposal stage, said Matthew Christian, Executive Administrator for the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience in Psychology. On Friday, Jan. 29, Arete and the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience held a symposium at the Gleacher Center to review proposals from scholars worldwide, including several at the University of Chicago, for projects to develop a new interdisciplinary approach to the study of virtues, a project called, A New Science of Virtues.

Arete identifies faculty members with ideas that require interdisciplinary collaboration, and helps them develop project proposals. Through its relationships to the Office of the Provost and the Office of the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories, Arete has helped assemble research teams from campus, as well as the international community of scholars, to conceptualize a research project.

Currently, proposals amounting to $50 million are under review with various funding agencies, while projects seeking $70 million in funding are currently under development. Arete has helped faculty obtain more than $30 million in funding to date. These are examples of some projects under way:

  • A project to halt the spread of infectious disease, led by Diane Lauderdale, Professor in Medicine, and Charles Macal, Senior System Engineer at Argonne National Laboratory. It will use agent-based modeling to integrate information about the life cycle of viruses, their geographic spread and other issues, such as demographic patterns and the behavior of individuals and groups. The model that Lauderdale and her colleagues hope to create would allow researchers from any city to enter their own demographic and disease data to find the best strategy to slow transmission.
  • In looking at world poverty, The Chicago Consortium on Financial Services for the Poor examines how improved banking services could provide a ladder out of poverty by encouraging entrepreneurship. Its director is Robert Townsend, who is a research associate at the University of Chicago and a professor at MIT.
  • In early 2009, Arete helped the CIM-Earth Project secure a planning grant from the MacArthur Foundation to assemble a global team of societies and to engage policymakers on aproject conceived by Ian Foster, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor in Computer Science. The project, the Community Integrated Model of Economic and Resource Trajectories for Human Kind, is intended to develop a computational model to better understand energy by taking into account the earth's physical systems as well as human economic and social behavior. The approach could bring new insights in ways of fighting global warming.
  • Arete also has facilitated projects that bring the humanities and the sciences into closer dialogue. The Defining Wisdom Research Project, for instance, seeks to create a new science of wisdom, grounded in both humanistic traditions as well as in psychology and neuroscience.