Crossing the great divides

October 10, 1997

Cath Cotton talks to academics about breaking down barriers in the brave world of interdisciplinarity

MOVES to break through traditional boundaries between disciplines can be threatening to some academics.

Amanda Root, who is based at Oxford University's transport studies unit, has been involved with multidisciplinary research into environmental change. She believes people need to question their own disciplinary origins.

"Most kudos is given to people who can amass hard facts - it gives them status. But contradictions in people's lives make them see complexities and become self-reflective," she says.

John Seed, senior lecturer in history at the Roehampton Institute London, where a number of academics are engaged in interdisciplinary teaching as well as research, adds that such work is perceived as a threat to the status quo in established disciplines.

"Interdisciplinary work doesn't just have the positive effect ofcombining insights of the twodisciplines on a given topic," he says. "It can also lead to strong criticism of the traditional way of doing it. So it is often resisted within the disciplines because it can be disruptive."

The value of academics from different disciplines working together was not lost on Sir Ron Dearing when his committee reported in July.

"Many important research advances are made, and will continue to be made, across the boundaries of traditional fields," his main report said.

But evidence to the committee showed widespread concern that the competitive nature of the research assessment exercise and its strong subject focus actually discouraged academics from working together.

"In spite of the assurances made by the funding bodies that assessment panels will 'give special attention to the special nature of interdisciplinary research and its assessment', and in spite of the growth in interdisciplinary research, there seems to be little confidence that it is assessed well," the report said.

Sir Ron acknowledged that this criticism could also be made of nearly all traditional funding processes, including those often used by the research councils.

He therefore recommended that the funding bodies and research councils commission a study to evaluate the funding of interdisciplinary research - "including the incentives and disincentives".

The Higher Education Funding Council for England will begin consulting on a new framework for the next RAE in November and has already held meetings with the research councils about commissioning a study along the lines recommended by Dearing.

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