What makes a culture of interdisciplinary research?

Over the last year I have been lucky enough to spend my time exploring HE interdisciplinary research in the context of policy.

I have worked with some excellent people and met some fantastic researchers. All have proactively contributed to an increased understanding of what it means to undertake, stimulate and embed this sort of research in today’s research culture.

Today, HEFCE publishes two new studies including collaborative work with RCUK, which complement work by the British Academy and the Global Research Council.

All consider what works and what challenges remain in the landscape of interdisciplinary research. Today’s studies build on previous work including A Review of the UK’s Interdisciplinary Research and The nature, scale and beneficiaries of research impact published in 2015.

So we have a lot to think about – hundreds of pages, and a range of perspectives from which to approach the findings. But what I have reflected on most throughout the last year is culture.

Getting the full picture

Culture is shaped, influenced and reshaped by changes in its participants and its overarching environment. The relationship is not linear or one way.

Many of the challenges which emerged through the work are familiar: collaboration, discipline-oriented cultures, career-related barriers, evaluation of research outcomes, and funding for interdisciplinary research.

Discussions in these areas often circle back to the way in which research is funded and rewarded which are legitimate areas of discussion but only part of the picture.

The academic community

Although the work published today and that undertaken by ourselves and others highlights important areas where policy could operate differently, the role of the academic community in the shaping of national, institutional and academy policy and practice resonated throughout the work.

The academic community informs and reviews the majority of academic research funding. Academic panels review excellence in research. Academic peers assess publications and academic boards judge appointments. Departmental structures and the operational services which support them are ultimately framed around the disciplines they serve.

All of these areas are flagged as potential bottle necks for interdisciplinary research.

I accept whole heartedly that the overarching structure has a significant role to play in getting this right and we are not there yet but the relationship between the environment and its participants is not linear or one way – the academy has a very real role to play in guiding the ship.

To find out more please see the full research reports or sign up to the Interdisciplinary Research: Policy and Practice conference in December 2016.