Interdisciplinary research blog blue bkgrnd-01

Why is this currently on my mind? It is because today the UK funding bodies have announced the membership of an Interdisciplinary Research Advisory Panel (IDAP) for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021. I have been appointed as chair and will be working with colleagues from across the UK and across disciplinary backgrounds to consider this fundamental but potentially problematic area.

Interdisciplinary research and the REF?

The Stern review and the subsequent REF consultation highlighted the importance of interdisciplinary research (IDR) to the research landscape and looked for ways to promote and ensure fair and equitable assessment of all research submitted to the REF. Interestingly outputs declared as interdisciplinary on submission to REF2014, and assessed by peer review, scored equally as well as their single-discipline counterparts.

But, as many of us have experienced, questions remain in our communities about the assessment of IDR and what approaches will be taken in a future exercise. Additionally, anecdotally there is a suspicion in the community that some IDR was not submitted to the last REF due to worries about how it might fare.

Assessing interdisciplinary work

Assessing interdisciplinary work is not easy. You cannot simply rely on experts on the individual component parts to come up with an overall judgement, simply by summing (or averaging) their scores. Not-cutting-edge science in either or any of the contributing disciplines can nevertheless lead to startling new results, by combining different approaches to create something novel.

That isn’t the only way novelty can be achieved, but it is one that can be hampered by ‘experts’ concentrating on the originality of the elements they feel qualified to assess, rather than the value of the whole.

Disciplines are convenient fictions, groupings which can create the impression that large gaps exist between them where nothing sits (‘forbidden states’ as we would say in condensed matter physics). However, although they aren’t that, researchers can operate as if they are – with a ‘silo mentality’.

There has been a large amount of research undertaken over the last two years by a range of organisations considering the IDR landscape, which unsurprisingly touches on the assessment of IDR. This includes work published by HEFCE, Research Councils UK and the British Academy. Alongside this there has been work within the community which has considered the way interdisciplinary research should be evaluated: work co-authored by Tom McLeish and Veronica Strang particularly comes to mind.

No doubt we collectively will be studying this body of research and other similar documents to help inform our ultimate recommendations.

I am under no illusions that all will be solved by several meetings over the next two years. It just isn’t that kind of problem. I believe the group has taken on a very large, but important, challenge and I look forward to tackling it with my IDAP colleagues.

The Interdisciplinary Research Advisory Panel has been established to advise the REF team, REF panel chairs and the UK funding bodies on the approach to support the submission and assessment of interdisciplinary research in the REF. The panel will advise on whether it should have a specific role in the submissions and assessment phase of the next REF in summer 2018, following the completion of its initial work.