Brussels, 05 May 2004
The EU's research advisory board (EURAB) has produced a new report detailing the barriers that exist to carrying out interdisciplinary research in Europe, and making recommendations as to how such barriers can be overcome.
'Many major breakthroughs in science take place at the boundaries or intersections of disciplines. [...The] solution to many of today's complex problems in areas such as globalisation, environment, health, defence and security must, by definition, be addressed using a multidisciplinary approach,' reads the report.
EURAB argues that it is essential that the many barriers to carrying out interdisciplinary research - both institutional and systemic - be removed if the European Research Area (ERA) is to promote cutting edge research. 'Research systems which are weak in addressing such interdisciplinary needs may miss research opportunities, fall behind in research areas, and lose many of their most innovative researchers,' the report warns.
The problem is most acute at the fundamental end of the research spectrum, where the traditional one-department, one-discipline structures of most universities are reflected in the structures of the research funding bodies. Specific challenges include the difficulty of creating new interdisciplinary programmes using established one-discipline funding systems, the weakness of multidisciplinary career structures, the lack of established interdisciplinary scientific journals, and education systems that are not geared towards producing multidisciplinary graduates and postgraduates.
In tackling these issues, EURAB recommends that the Commission adopt a strategy focusing on four key areas: the definition of a discipline; education and training of researchers; university structures and policies; and research funding for institutions and systems.
In defining research disciplines, the report suggests that a reduction of the number of de-facto definitions into which research funding is allocated would be helpful in creating greater opportunities for interdisciplinarity. EURAB recommends that when creating EU expert groups or advisory boards, the Commission must ensure that barriers to interdisciplinary research are not unwittingly created, and in the development of its thematic priorities, the Commission must balance the need for targeted calls for proposals with the need for multidisciplinary approaches. 'Interdisciplinary research expressly includes the social sciences and humanities,' the report adds.
With regard to the education and training of researchers, the report argues that, at undergraduate level, there is a need to provide bridges towards other disciplines, and warns that overspecialisation at doctoral level creates barriers to industrial employment.
Therefore, EURAB recommends that the Commission consider establishing a high level EU doctoral programme in new areas and with cross discipline boundaries. A review of recent developments in industry-based doctoral training should also be carried out, with good practice being transferred to the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), and in particular, the Marie Curie Programme. Finally, universities should be encouraged to provide opportunities for undergraduates to take credit modules outside their own area of speciality.
University structures and policies themselves can also act as a barrier to interdisciplinary research. The report states that 'professors and lecturers are employed into the disciplinary matrix [of a university]. Buildings - or floors of buildings - often physically delineate the departmental division of knowledge.'
One seemingly successful response to this has been the creation of virtual research centres, either within universities or on an inter-institutional level. The Commission is therefore urged to undertake an examination of good practice and success factors in virtual research centres, paying particular attention to their use in the development of interdisciplinary research and networks of excellence.
When it comes to creating new interdisciplinary research centres themselves, however, EURAB warns that before co-financing such facilities, the Commission should balance the cost and benefits against the reform or extension of existing traditional disciplinary structures, as overemphasis on such centres may 'denude the traditional, disciplinary departmental structures of research vitality and cause difficulties in developing top level undergraduate teaching.'
Finally, with regard to research funding agencies, EURAB welcomes the effectiveness of programmes such as the Commission's new and emerging science and technologies (NEST) initiative, which encourage highly innovative, high risk interdisciplinary proposals. The report proposes that the NEST programme's budget should be roughly doubled to 500 million euro, and urges the Commission to review the mechanisms used by EU and national funding agencies to design, evaluate and manage interdisciplinary research.
In closing, EURAB states that its recommendations to the Commission are made in the context of its work in developing the research potential within universities, in co-funding and working with other research funding bodies, and in its own funding of research and associated training. '[U]niversities, research funding agencies and the European Commission services play a critical role in providing researchers with the flexibility and appropriate resources to undertake such research,' the report concludes.
To access the EURAB report, please consult the following web address: