Help for the academic nomads in search of their own sympathetic tribe

March 5, 1999

Researchers who cross disciplines need to break a vicious circle to win recognition. A separate RAE could be the answer, argues Joyce Tait

At last there is evidence that interdisciplinary research is being taken seriously. We have the European Fifth Framework Programme and Foresight in the UK treating scientific and technological solutions as part of an integrated approach, linking socioeconomic needs and other policy objectives. But these initiatives also demonstrate our lack of sophistication in the development, management and evaluation of interdisciplinary research.

Disciplines define academic territories and set the boundaries within which most academics constrain their activities for most of the time. They are a way of reducing the complexity of real-world problems to make them more manageable and to allow a particular kind of progress to be made. Interdisciplinary research challenges traditional academic territory and is often seen as a threat. But there is more than one type of interdisciplinary research, and some are more challenging than others The least challenging is "fundamental" interdisciplinary research. Take the combining of insights from chemistry, physics and biology in the 1950s that led to today's academic-industry complex working on biotechnology. Such interactions form the basis of many multimillion-pound laboratories set up in and around British universities. "Fundamental" interdisciplinary research may challenge the boundaries of particular disciplines, but it does not challenge the discipline-based framework itself. It can be accommodated in university management, funding and assessment structures without too much difficulty.

At the more challenging end is "applied" interdisciplinary research. This arises from a desire to solve practical problems, the stimulus often arising outside the academic community, in, say, government or industry. Such problems usually cover a range of disciplines, often including natural and social sciences. A project may take on board insights from chemistry, economics and law, or from chemistry and social psychology. Such research challenges the system from the perspective of its academic development, its management and its evaluation.

A recent survey by Evaluation Associates on behalf of the funding councils considered whether the research assessment exercise inhibits interdisciplinary research. A broad definition of interdisciplinary research was adopted, making no distinction between, for example, fundamental and applied interdisciplinary research. But in terms of staff and money for infrastructure and research grants, the volume of fundamental interdisciplinary research greatly exceeds that of applied. The survey results can be taken as a reasonable indicator of the state of the former, but not of the latter.

I have been doing applied interdisciplinary research for 25 years so I think I am in a good position to articulate the concerns of these researchers, many of which have not emerged from the survey.

First, there is no career structure for staff engaging in applied interdisciplinary research. They become academic nomads without a tribe and usually have to retreat back to their parent disciplines to get a permanent contract or promotion. The experience of how to do applied interdisciplinary research is often lost and rarely formalised. Each new project has to begin from scratch. This is expensive and leads to a higher than necessary number of inadequate projects as researchers do not get the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

The lack of career structure also means the interdisciplinary coordinator is often a junior member of a team otherwise composed of more senior discipline-based members. The coordinator then has little opportunity to give effective leadership and to ensure integration of disciplines. Even without these constraints, building teams and integrating disciplines takes time and can make the research more expensive than monodisciplinary research, although the benefits can be much greater if synergy among disciplines is achieved.

The outputs of interdisciplinary research are also harder to evaluate from the traditional academic perspectives. The contribution to knowledge is likely to involve bringing together insights from two normally unrelated academic areas. Finding an outlet for refereed interdisciplinary publications is not usually a problem, but the relevant journals are not highly regarded in the research assessment exercise and the size of the academic community likely to cite interdisciplinary publications is small. It is also difficult to do justice to an interdisciplinary project within the space limitations of most academic journals, so many researchers publish in book chapters or other publications with a lower RAE ranking.

This creates a vicious circle that prevents applied interdisciplinary research from achieving its full potential, and the RAE reinforces the gate-keeper role of the disciplines at the expense of diversity in the academic system. We need to encourage good researchers to see applied interdisciplinary research as a career opportunity rather than a temporary dalliance because they find it interesting.

The most effective way to break into the cycle is to reward researchers and their institutions for the quality and quantity of their applied interdisciplinary output. To do this we need different criteria from those in operation in the RAE, which put applied interdisciplinary research at a disadvantage.

The contribution of the RAE to improving research standards is widely acknowledged, but it is difficult to envisage how any amount of piecemeal adjustment at the margins of the RAE could do justice to applied interdisciplinary research without jeopardising its role in relation to other types of research.

A separate RAE for applied interdisciplinary research could encourage universities to develop institutional mechanisms to support such work, encourage staff to develop careers in this direction and ensure we begin the process of developing effective quality criteria to match those in place for academically oriented work.

Applied interdisciplinary research should not, however, be divorced from the rest of the academic system. Ideally, it will lead to new insights and research questions, and better proposals for fundamental or monodisciplinary projects. The challenge for the university system is to find an approach that will enable all types of research to flourish equally and to nourish one another, recognising the diverse potential contained within academic disciplines while releasing this diversity from its constraining boundaries.

Joyce Tait is visiting professor at Edinburgh University and the Open University. She is director of the Scottish Universities Policy, Research and Advisory Network.

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