On 9th June 2017, the latest in our Lunchtime Debate series focused on interdisciplinary research. It attracted a capacity audience.
Dr Steven Hill, Head of Research Policy at HEFCE, opened the panel session. He spoke of the significant opportunities for interdisciplinary research to address the world’s grand challenges and stimulate innovation, citing the REF case studies as underpinning evidence. Steven also identified some of the potential barriers, which could be organisational (the way universities and research are organised into faculties and subject groupings) but also cultural (the need of researchers for an identity or ‘home’ to which they belong). He suggested that we should develop research questions in a way that led to ‘un-disciplinary’ research. He accepted that it could be hard to measure innovation and interdisciplinary research.
Steven’s concluding statements on measurement provided an appropriate introduction to the presentation of Dr Ian Viney (Director of Strategic Evaluation and Impact, Medical Research Council). Ian emphasised the strong policy drive to identify and measure interdisciplinary research. Ideas, work, people and impacts all differ within an interdisciplinary context and studies have provided useful insight into this. There are various approaches that have been used for tracking interdisciplinarity, including analysis of grant applications, publications, and REF case studies. A study in Nature analysed grant proposals to the Australian Research Council and concluded that those with greater interdisciplinarity fared less well at peer review. However, these results included differences across subject areas, with interdisciplinarity being an advantage in more “mission” orientated fields such as medicine. A recent MRC funded study conducted by Digital Science had found that “indexes” based on analysis of grant applications, publications and citations gave very different answers with respect to indicating the degree of disciplinarity. Ian also presented some preliminary results from the MRC to illustrate ‘near’ and ‘far’ interdisciplinarity. He concluded that metrics should be used responsibly and that for identifying and measuring the extent of interdisciplinarity, a basket of measures may be more successful than reliance on any single indicator or proxy. He believed that the new UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) would provide fresh avenues by which to fund interdisciplinary research.
Professor Nicky Priaulx is based at Cardiff University’s School of Law and Politics. She noted that she started as a ‘naïve interdisciplinary cheerleader’, highly enthusiastic about interdisciplinarity – but engagements with other disciplines led her to realise that there were often a series of epistemic ‘glass walls’ standing between disciplinary actors. She noted that these were very difficult to overcome. The glass wall in this sense emerged by virtue of how disciplinary expertise consists of many unspoken and unwritten conventions and practices – a form of tacit knowledge which can only be acquired through social and linguistic immersion within that specialist domain. As a result, the interdisciplinary ideal that Nicky centralises – and emphasises as critical for policy-leaning work in particular – is one of cross-disciplinary ‘collaborative practice’ – working with individuals ‘who know what they’re talking about’. Nicky discussed how here also, we need to learn far more about the ‘how to’ of collaborative cross-disciplinary practice. She cited her work in the LEAP network and the LawLab workshop series. The emphasis was on learning to work with people from other disciplines and sectors. It required ‘academic match-makers’, the ability to bring people with potentially complementary interests from different disciplines together. Her final note on this was that while it was a time-consuming process, collaboration typically leads to better ideas and work.
Professor Nick Pidgeon at Cardiff’s School of Psychology had encountered interdisciplinarity early on, when he did a joint degree at Keele. He now headed up a research centre on risk, and he agreed that it was important to sit alongside people from other disciplines. He also agreed that good interdisciplinary research arose from a problem-focus. He provided two examples of reports that examined the energy sector (references below). One looked at whole-system change and had proved challenging to write but proved to be influential. The other brought together different theoretical ideas, posing the question of how to overcome the language of other disciplines and to synthesise. He concluded by saying that it could be difficult to find a source in which to publish and to come up with a reviewer who was on the same wavelength.
Professor Cathy Holt provided a fascinating personal story of how she had moved into her current field of biomedical engineering. She was enthusiastic about working across disciplines but agreed that it could be challenging, time-consuming and requiring close management to ensure the delivery of impact. She urged the research councils to understand this and to embrace interdisciplinary research.
Professor Ole Petersen, the panel chair, opened the discussion to the audience.
One audience member felt that a research question needed to advance thinking in both disciplines and not be an act of simple knowledge transfer. Much depended on the choice of assessor, particularly when (s)he could not be expert in both disciplines. Ian Viney questioned whether a proposal needed to be innovative across all fields and stressed that funders must guide their reviewers. Nicky Priaulx agreed that a ‘review of reviewers’ might be a positive thing and Cathy Holt gave an example of when her work had been rejected by reviewers who did not understand the field. Steven Hill emphasised that every researcher was doing something unique and that review was about getting the right combination of people. Reviewers needed to be open to disciplines other than their own. He felt it was partly down to how researchers were trained.
Another issue raised was how to increase rewards and incentivise interdisciplinary research. Cathy Holt suggested targeted funding and support for longer PhDs/Masters programmes that included specific training. Nick Pidgeon also agreed with training early-career researchers in making grant applications and how to be aware of the broad arc of a topic. Nicky Priaulx wanted to see more cooperation and less competition.
There was concern from an audience member for the use of metrics; time and money were more useful. Ian Viney responded by giving the example of how the MRC often started small, with seed-funding in a new area to build collaboration and networking. Inspiring leadership was important for interdisciplinary research teams. Steven Hill thought it was a long-game of doctoral training and thinking in ‘un-disciplinary’ ways. A member of the audience agreed that the impact agenda was a good way of showing how collaboration achieves change. Professor Petersen concluded by saying that interdisciplinary research would need significantly increased financial investment in the future.