British Academy warns over ‘disincentives’ to interdisciplinarity

Government and universities must find ways to remove obstacles to cross-cutting research, says report

July 12, 2016
Row of men listening to vinyl records in turntable booths
Source: Alamy
Obstacle course: the British Academy report looked at many factors, including a number of ‘institutionalised disincentives to interdisciplinarity’

A new report from the British Academy explores the “barriers to interdisciplinary research” at all career stages and how they can be overcome.

Launched on 12 July, Crossing Paths: Interdisciplinary Institutions, Careers, Education and Applications points to “a broad and deep support for IDR [inter-disciplinary research]” within universities, both for “its essential role in addressing complex problems and research questions posed by global social challenges” and for “the increased rigour it can bring to one’s understanding of one’s own discipline”.

Yet it also notes that many who were “asked what advice [they] would provide an early-career researcher wanting to start out on an IDR career or undertake an IDR project” stated that “they would advise against such a move – at least until the researcher was well established with a permanent job”.

The report goes on to survey a number of “institutionalised disincentives to interdisciplinarity”.

Those pursuing PhDs may “incur career risks” by incorporating an interdisciplinary approach into their theses, if that means that they fail to “develop the requisite discipline base and methodological expertise for subsequent career progression. As one researcher put it during an institutional visit: they may be perceived to be ‘discipline-less’ in a job market largely organised on a discipline basis.”

Early career researchers (ECRs) can find that “funding is more likely to be secured for disciplinary research than IDR”. Recruiting panels will often “prefer someone with experience in core and foundational subjects”. And once they have secured a post, “juggling a full teaching load with the demands of publishing may encourage ECRs to stay within their discipline rather than investing in developing IDR”.

Even mid-career academics, argues Crossing Paths, may see it as “relatively high risk” to “pursu[e] innovative IDR”, compared with “leading-edge work in an established field in one’s existing academic social network”, especially given a perception that “interdisciplinary proposals [for research funding] have lower success rates”.

Furthermore, since departments gain prestige and power through their “ability to attract substantial research funding (grants and contracts plus the quality-related funding allocation following the REF evaluation) and doctoral students”, it can often be “rational for [them] to perpetuate discipline-focused research”.

Having set out some of the difficulties that scholars face in interdisciplinary research, the British Academy report also makes a number of proposals about how to overcome them.

The executive summary encourages institutions “clearly [to] convey support for IDR to allow researchers to explore new projects outside their academic home with confidence that this work will be assessed and valued appropriately”.

Universities should address “the challenge of reconciling the disciplinary-based structures for organising research and teaching activities and associated resources, and the cross-cutting structures needed to support IDR and provide interdisciplinary teaching”.

And they should “establish strategies for managing income across disciplinary and IDR structures and units”. Given that IDR generally “takes extra time and groundwork”, one important aspect of this is protecting “seedcorn funding for bottom-up IDR projects”.

Equally important was the role of the government, which “should publish an assessment of the capability of each department to absorb advice and evidence from the science and research community at disciplinary and interdisciplinary levels”.

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