Enticing researchers from very different subject areas to collaborate – such as philosophers working with computer scientists – is often seen as a key aim of 21st-century scholarship.
But a new study that looked at the extent to which different fields were involved in research projects in Australia suggests radical cross-disciplinary collaborations may not be the norm.
The study, led by researchers at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Engineering, used subject codes to look at the relative contribution of different fields to interdisciplinary projects funded by the Australian Research Council.
They found that certain disciplines such as engineering and biological sciences – and to a lesser extent some humanities subjects – “dominated” interdisciplinary research at both an individual and aggregate level.
But the study also found that, rather than reaching across major disciplinary divides, such subject areas were also more often than not working with very similar fields.
“We can easily see that engineering, medical and humanities related disciplines formed clusters within themselves,” the paper says, with biological sciences being the only major example of a field that “seemed to be in a bridging position” with “collaboration to both medical science and engineering disciplines”.
The narrowness of collaborations was even more pronounced when looking at how often science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects joined forces with non-STEM fields, according to the paper in Scientometrics.
Shahadat Uddin, senior lecturer in the Sydney faculty’s Complex Systems Research Group, and one of the paper’s co-authors, said additional data from the project showed that 64 per cent of the overall “participation strength” in interdisciplinary projects came from collaboration between science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Collaboration between non-STEM fields represented 23 per cent and only 13 per cent came from collaborations between STEM and non-STEM disciplines.
Further data also showed that on average there had been lower growth in interdisciplinary projects featuring both STEM and non-STEM subjects than for those completely within each area.
He said that if the aim of funders, policymakers and universities was to boost interdisciplinary research across the board then the analysis was “quite satisfactory” in terms of the “intense collaboration” they identified.
“However, if the goal…is to encourage collaboration between contrasting fields – eg, between STEM and non-STEM topics – then our research shows that there are significant gaps in the collaboration between these contrasting topics.”
Dr Uddin added: “The evidence is surprising in the way that the contrasting topics are not getting much attention or attracting funding to boost up their growth or participation strengths as much as purely STEM or humanities-based topics.”
He suggested that to increase such collaboration there might need to be improved guidelines on funding interdisciplinary projects while also carrying out a “rigorous review on the current trends to push the research endeavour forward”.
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