Better together

In the UK's increasingly multidisciplinary academy, joint appointments are a must, Thom Brooks argues

February 10, 2011

The days of monodisciplinarity are swiftly fading. Academics from across the UK are under increasing pressure to engage in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research. Research funding bodies regularly favour project proposals that bring together two or more academic disciplines, or that involve "bridging" teams from different disciplines collaborating to stimulate new lines of research enquiry.

Meanwhile, universities are restructuring, merging departments to form new schools that bring together several disciplinary subjects. Local funding for projects and seminar series remains widely available at many institutions, but this funding is often contingent on the work bringing benefits to at least two diverse subjects.

The merits of these developments may be debated. But there is no disputing that the universities, research funding bodies and the government are all committed to this process, actively encouraging greater collaboration between academic disciplines. Why then are joint appointments virtually absent from the UK sector?

The current system works against such appointments. A prized academic working in two different disciplinary departments would count for less in each than someone working in only one.

For example, such an academic may count as no more than 0.5 staff in each area, which reduces the impact of their work in research assessments. It is far more valuable for a department to keep its professors all to itself than to share them with others.

But if it is beneficial for academics to work in more than a single subject, then it is surely wise to appoint scholars to more than one discipline, where appropriate. The move would help expose them to new ideas and research programmes to which they could contribute.

Joint appointments would also demonstrate the value added in teaching and research across more than one discipline. In that sense, such appointments could be considered an indicator of "impact".

In any case, many academic staff already teach and research in more than one discipline. Joint appointments would recognise the actual contributions that staff are already making.

This could further encourage others to engage more often in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work, helping to advance the clearly stated commitments of their universities, research councils and government.

Joint appointments would clearly embody the disciplinary ethos within higher education today.

This method of working has been a great success elsewhere, for example in Canada and the US, in a variety of fields. Professors who have joint appointments are highly prized and their status is often a clear acknowledgement of the breadth of their influence.

Various combinations of joint appointments in business, classics, economics, law, medicine, philosophy, political science and other subjects are far from unusual outside the UK, and make sense: each of these disciplines may benefit from greater interaction with others.

Joint appointments are not the only path to fostering such interaction, but they might help to build more lasting bridges between disciplines than funded research projects. Projects come and go, but such appointments will often last far longer and potentially have a far greater effect on relevant fields of study and the university teaching and research environment.

By failing to offer joint appointments, the UK actually suffers a competitive disadvantage in relation to North American universities.

It is time to reverse this state of affairs. If our universities, research funding bodies and government remain sincere about their desire for greater collaboration between disciplines, one significant and highly welcome step forward would be to open the doors to joint appointments. And the sooner, the better.

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