The policy and practice of interdisciplinary research

What makes excellent interdisciplinary research? How can it be best supported, developed and embedded? How important are structures and culture to getting this right? These important questions were discussed at the joint HEFCE, RCUK and British Academy event ‘Interdisciplinary Research: Policy and Practice’ on 8 December in London.

We considered the research policy landscape, research assessment and funding, researcher career development, case studies of institutional practice, and the impact of research culture. The discussions were diverse, creative, helpful and there was consensus on key issues.

HEFCE, RCUK and the British Academy are drawing together the discussions to share more widely with the community, so I am going to concentrate, as the luxury of the role of Chair allows, on several things that stood out for me.

From Sir Mark Walport at the beginning of the day to Professor Tom McLeish at the end we heard of the importance of the form of research following function, the additive nature of interdisciplinary working, and the power of our universities to stimulate and support research within their research communities.

The importance of interdisciplinary research was clear, but throughout the discussions the value and significance of disciplinary research was ever present.

The policy landscape

Discussions about the research policy landscape, and a range of recent studies on interdisciplinary research from policy and professional organisations, presented some interesting and useful information with some common conclusions.

We heard that those outputs identified on submission to REF 2014 as interdisciplinary were rated equally well to those that were not.

In relation to funding for interdisciplinary research, there is agreement that having sufficient time for projects to work in an interdisciplinary mode can be as important as the level of funding. We also heard that despite the academic community valuing interdisciplinary research, many would not advise an early-career researcher to participate before they had established their own disciplinary credentials.

Working away from home

During the day, one of our speakers described interdisciplinary research as a bit like working away from home.

Working away from home can be somewhat  uncomfortable, it can lead you to meet new people who have different ways of working, different life experiences, different expert ‘language’ and different forms of expertise.

This analogy filtered through the rest of the day. It featured in discussions about how interdisciplinary research is done, and how early-career researchers and those that seek to support them, can build a depth of knowledge and a breadth of skill.

Complexity

Many noted that the challenges raised by different research projects and researcher experiences apply to research in general. So the group was challenged to consider what was unique to the experience of interdisciplinary research.

Across those discussions it was the complexity of the interactions that stood out. Whether it was:

  • an early career researcher attempting to navigate multiple academic communities as well as establishing their own research ‘home’; or
  • a large team working across different sites, organisations or sectors; or
  • funders and publishers guiding and sourcing reviewers with the skills and diversity of understanding to ensure robust and effective peer review of interdisciplinary proposals and work.

Culture

Many of the discussions of the day returned to culture: how early-career researchers are guided and supported, the role of the academic community in peer review, and the impact of the disciplinary framing of academic structures.

We saw how academic culture feeds structure, but also the strong influence of structures on culture with the way in which funding, assessment and measuring frameworks are built and implemented.

Opportunities

Interdisciplinary research has become increasingly essential as the challenges faced by individuals, communities and the world become more technically and socially complex.

Real opportunities present themselves in the changing research landscape to improve on a system that supports excellence, and a culture that can deliver but also facilitate the interdisciplinary research of the future.