Junior scholars face penalties for interdisciplinary work

Universities need to adapt career paths to accommodate scientists who tap into different fields, says research

January 21, 2017
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Early and mid-career scientists face “severe extra costs and fewer rewards” if they choose to pursue research that integrates different disciplines, according to a study.

The report, which looks at the field of energy research, finds that scientists with this level of experience are most affected by the challenges associated with interdisciplinary work, because of their fixed-term employment contracts.

Interdisciplinary research should be “incentivised rather than punished” and universities need to develop specific policies to support the work, the authors conclude.

There are repeated calls for more research to take an interdisciplinary approach to help solve the world’s complex problems. This is particularly true in the field of energy research, which integrates many disciplines including engineering, environmental science, computer science, mathematics, economics, business and the social sciences.

The authors, Geertje Schuitema, a lecturer at University College Dublin, and Nicole Sintov, assistant professor of research at the University of Southern California, both have joint appointments in the engineering schools, and business and public policy schools of their respective universities.

The pair write in Energy Policy that they “have grappled with several institutional challenges and barriers” that have hindered the success of their work and ask whether they should quit their jobs.

Dr Schuitema and Dr Sintov list the challenges and barriers that scientists wishing to do boundary-spanning research face. The list includes limited funding, difficulties publishing their findings, and the fact that university systems are not adapted particularly well to accommodate staff who work in more than one area. 

Researchers at all stages of their careers are affected by these challenges, they say. “However, our analyses indicate that in comparison to those focusing on a monodisciplinary career path, early and mid-career energy researchers suffer most from the severe extra costs and fewer rewards when choosing to engage in interdisciplinary research,” they add.

“They are often on fixed-term contracts or tenure-track positions, which means that they are usually evaluated on short-term successes and mono-disciplinary standards,” they say.

Dr Schuitema and Dr Sintov add that this is “particularly problematic” because early and mid-career scientists are needed to help accelerate the impact of boundary spanning research and help it reach its full potential.

But they conclude that they should not quit their jobs and call for institutions to “reconsider their values and structures”. Universities should develop promotion and tenure evaluation criteria for interdisciplinary research and create training programmes for such work.

“[I]nterdisciplinary research should be incentivised rather than punished, and interdisciplinary researchers should be rewarded rather than pay high career costs,” they write.

holly.else@tesglobal.com

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