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How to successfully develop and run interdisciplinary research teams

John Domingue explains how to foster a culture of openness and support that encourages and helps staff teams to pursue interdisciplinary research projects

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John Domingue's avatar
The Open University
18 May 2024
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Advice for bringing together multiple academic disciplines into one project or approach, examples of interdisciplinary collaboration done well and how to put interdisciplinarity into practice in research, teaching, leadership and impact
Advice on developing and managing successful interdisciplinary research teams

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Interdisciplinary research is growing in popularity and is increasingly seen as essential. Multiple perspectives on research challenges will often lead to better outcomes. For example, in the BBC’s recent Reith Lectures on AI, it was proposed that “every AI centre that’s working ought to have a resident philosopher or ethicist on board to prick the consciences or at least remind people that this is important”.

A common obvious challenge of interdisciplinary research, though, is that one is not just stepping outside boundaries in terms of creating new knowledge but that one is creating (or at least amalgamating) research methodologies. This stepping out of our “comfort methodology zone” creates stresses and can cause risks for staff careers and department reputation.

Additionally, differing values and language create barriers to successful collaboration and group cohesion generally. Given the above, how can we successfully establish and run interdisciplinary research teams?

A research culture of openness and fluidity

Culture is vital. It is important that the prevailing culture is open and egalitarian, empowering researchers to cross research areas, methodologies or communities without fear of failure. Ways in which one can create this is to remove as much unnecessary structure and formal process as possible.

Leadership should adopt an anti-structure, anti-committee approach allowing connections and groupings to be generated bottom up by researchers who find common interest. This means minimising the extent to which organisational roles are considered and to reduce or eliminate hierarchical line management structures.

Task-oriented teams are the main structure that should be adopted – bringing together individuals who can contribute to a research artefact no matter if they are academics, PhD students, lab technicians, software developers or professional service staff.

Within a team, all members should be willing to work on all tasks as time and ability permit. This “team not role” standpoint should permeate all areas. My lab even has a fridge-cleaning rota that all staff are expected to participate in (when we are not in a pandemic).

Another important aspect of the culture is to foster individual freedom. Researchers should be free to pursue any research field that they deem interesting through any means. Resources should be accessible with few barriers. We have found that nothing reduces efficiency and motivation more than having to go through internal bidding processes, especially when the available funds are small. Within my lab, our view is, whenever feasible, to simply say “yes” to every request we receive.

Hand in hand with this approach are the following constraints and responsibilities:

Staff numbers: The attributes of agility and minimal structure and processes constrain the size of the research unit. From our experience, we estimate that 80 personnel total – all staff and PhD students – is about the limit. Beyond that, there is a loss of personal connectivity whereby culture and trust are harder to maintain.

Setting research targets: The main objective for research staff is to “make an impact” either on academia or society in general. One needs, though, to be careful about how objectives are measured. We use what we term the “Sistine Chapel” KPI: periodically, significant impact should be generated. Micro-measurements can harm a culture as staff start to view their relationship with the research unit as transactional and one that should be gamed.

A shared mission: A unifying totem is the last element of culture that we believe is important to success. All staff need to agree at some level on a common epistemological standpoint. For example, we take the Open University’s core mission around equity and openness and add technological innovation. All our research is thus broadly aimed at providing societal good through technology, and we expect and encourage our staff to be ultra-early technology adopters.

Hiring and retaining research talent

Successful researchers tend to be highly motivated and highly skilled. Within a multidisciplinary context, it is important that all staff also have an open attitude and are thus able to engage with new research frameworks and discipline value systems and semantics.

Seeking candidates who strongly align with the general unit values and totems is crucial. Over the years we have developed a hiring strategy that places an emphasis on the best places to advertise, which networks to use and how to best highlight what we offer.

Talent retention is a topic that is constantly explored and discussed by senior staff in my lab. Interdisciplinary researchers will often be highly sought after and, in some sectors, will be able to command far higher salaries in industry.

In addition to the cultural elements outlined above, our strategy for retaining staff is based on:

Taking career development seriously: Often overlooked in busy research environments, by senior and junior staff, it is important that all staff have clear career paths and that these are supported. Support will include:

  • intensive mentoring on areas that need development, for example, funding acquisition
  • understanding barriers at the level of the individual (eg, lacking a skill), unit (eg, biased judgements) and organisation (eg, challenging HR policies)
  • ensuring that all academic staff have an “academic home” that they can grow into as their stature increases.

Understanding and proactively fighting for all staff needs: A key duty for all line managers and especially the head of the research team is to listen to staff and engage with all other areas to create the best possible work environment. Typical areas that we have discussed lately have covered: visas, working through a pandemic with ill dependants who live outside the UK and supporting staff who wish to engage with the wider community.

We are lucky that the Open University is a serious listener. Any serious concern we raise is either resolved quickly or leads to engagement with the institution’s executive. This has enabled us to create an interdisciplinary research environment that is highly regarded externally and where staff in all roles have overwhelmingly reported positive feelings about the work environment. I can personally say that this combination is richly rewarding.

John Domingue is director of the Knowledge Media Institute at the Open University.

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Advice for bringing together multiple academic disciplines into one project or approach, examples of interdisciplinary collaboration done well and how to put interdisciplinarity into practice in research, teaching, leadership and impact

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