How right Geoff Mulgan (THES, March 15) is to draw attention to the persistent, but constraining, habit of categorising knowledge into traditional academic subject areas.
Some years ago the University of Portsmouth established an interdisciplinary research group for coastal zone management. It was agreed that underpinning research was required for this real-world, international activity to solve real-world problems associated with increasing demands and risks in coastal areas. The group has been successful in attracting research, publishing papers and disseminating information throughout workshops and conferences.
Capitalising on the initiative, a masters-level course in coastal and marine resource management was established. There is considerable interest in this course from potential students and employers and it has received external accreditation from a professional institution.
This sounds like a success story. However, the nature of the Research Assessment Exercise has meant that members of the group have had to return to their "home bases" for assessment where they find themselves very much at the margins of established academic domains. The interdisciplinary nature of the group has undermined its ability to be assessed as a unit and to obtain appropriate recognition. It has also proved a disadvantage in attracting funded places. There is no obvious "box" within which to apply and sources of sponsorship for interdisciplinary learning opportunities are limited.
Neither the group nor the course have found a home in traditional academic classifications. This experience is unlikely to be unusual. How many of us have strayed into other people's territory when exploring new problems? How much new research is at the boundaries of existing subject areas? How many of the new areas of learning are cross disciplinary and draw their strengths from the application of established ideas to new contexts? Such areas of learning are needed to respond to real problems, to provide the theoretical underpinning by established methodologies. To stymie such developments with administrative frameworks that constrain research does the future of research and learning a great disservice and reduces the likelihood of the resolution of real world problems.
Jane Taussik Centre for Coastal Zone Management University of Portsmouth