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Maximise your research impact through interdisciplinary collaboration

What’s the best way to achieve research impact? Qingyan Chen makes the case for an interdisciplinary approach

Qingyan Chen's avatar
30 Apr 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
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Research impact is an important indicator of the reputation of academics and their institutions. As director of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) Academy for Interdisciplinary Research (PAIR), a research platform dedicated to impactful interdisciplinary research, here are my thoughts on how universities can develop impactful research and make meaningful, society-changing findings.

Making research practical and influential

While theoretical research focuses on delving into the origins of the universe and human existence out of pure curiosity, applied research examines practical matters and seeks to generate solutions to real-world problems. It aims to bring direct, positive impact to society, across individuals, industries and communities.

Research findings need to be translated into real-world solutions to have extensive practical impact. We need technologies, services and interventions that are accessible for adoption and use by society. This involves collaboration both within and beyond the university.

PAIR collaborates closely with other key PolyU units, including the Research and Innovation Office and the Knowledge Transfer and Entrepreneurship Office, for the patenting and licensing of our solutions. We also collaborate with industry and end users so that innovations are designed to be fit for purpose. In this way, proprietary technologies can be adopted by government and industry, and related products powered by these cutting-edge technologies can be made available for purchase in the market.

An example of impactful research from a PAIR constituent unit is Liverscan. A palm-sized real-time brightness (B)-mode ultrasound imaging guided system, it was developed for liver fibrosis assessment, marking a major step in promoting a precise, effective and non-invasive method for diagnosing liver diseases in China. To manufacture and market the system, the research team founded Eieling Technology Limited, enabling the use of this patented innovation in a number of hospitals and medical examination centres in Hong Kong and mainland China. It will soon be introduced to the mainland Chinese consumer market. The start-up was listed on Forbes Asia 100 To Watch 2023.

The success of Liverscan is just one example of how applied research can achieve extensive impact through different interlocking processes, from research and development, assessment, patenting and licensing to marketing, and through collaborations at local, national and international levels.

Identifying research priorities

A clear, well-defined, appropriate research scope is another prerequisite for impactful research. But tackling complex societal challenges requires interdisciplinary expertise.

At PAIR, we have established 18 constituent research units, each comprising PolyU researchers from different schools and departments. Each unit focuses on applied research in a frontier area that falls under three key themes: advanced technologies and manufacturing, good health and well-being, and smart, sustainable cities. Responding to local development needs and the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, they provide innovative, cost-effective solutions that facilitate land, city and infrastructure development, promote physical and mental health, and support high-end, high value-added manufacturing and technologies.

As I noted previously, collaboration is key to impactful applied research. It should be embraced at various levels and include: interdisciplinary collaboration within and between research units and between these and other academic units; inter-institutional collaboration between the university and academic/research institutions worldwide; and cross-sectoral collaboration with industry and government.

On this, PAIR constituent research units have contributed to the university’s collaboration with industries, businesses, professional associations and government bodies in Hong Kong and worldwide. We have set up joint research projects, institutes, centres and laboratories dedicated to developing new technologies in diverse areas, including sports, advanced manufacturing, land development, human health and many more.  

Overcoming barriers to interdisciplinary research

Collaboration is crucial in helping overcome obstacles when pursuing large-scale interdisciplinary research. It can help with enhancing cross-disciplinary communication among researchers so that team members with different expertise are aligned towards achieving a common goal. Sharing laboratories and equipment with other academic units can allow physical assets to be used effectively. Collaborating can also engage industries and top institutions worldwide, creating emergent research and funding opportunities.

Here are three examples to show how to provide this support:

  • PAIR Researchers’ Corner is a regular activity, bringing together PolyU researchers from across disciplines for research exchange in a casual setting.
  • Institutions can hold regular research salons, allowing for cross-sectional exchange between researchers and industry representatives.
  • Encourage researchers to visit government and enterprise representatives frequently to explore the potential for joint projects and establish potential joint research units in frontier areas.

University research can – and should – take many different directions and forms. Achieve the end-goal of research impact through applied, interdisciplinary research that has a clear focus and generates practical, accessible solutions. The success of interdisciplinary research lies in collaboration – both internal collaboration within a university and external collaboration with industry and governments. It should be embraced at all levels within the university.

Qingyan Chen is director of PolyU Academy for Interdisciplinary Research at the Hong Kong Polytechnic 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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