Multidisciplinary research ‘career suicide’ for junior academics

However, director of the Oxford Martin School says 'disciplinary silos' were one factor contributing to 2008 financial crisis

May 3, 2016
Man multitasking work
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Multitasking: ‘if you can’t master any one field…you’re unlikely to be able to…grapple with issues that spill over multiple disciplinary boundaries’, says Oxford’s Ian Goldin

Carrying out multidisciplinary research can be “career suicide” for young academics as top journals are highly specialised and there is still little funding for projects that span subject areas.

So says Ian Goldin, professor of globalisation and development and director of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, who added that interdisciplinary research has not “seen much progress” in funding in the UK in research years, despite the fact that it has “become much more of a buzzword” and “all the research councils say they support it”.

He said that this is because research councils “have a bias against” multidisciplinary research as it falls outside their areas of expertise.

The councils “don’t know whether the people who are part of these interdisciplinary teams are leaders in their field or not and they don’t know whether the work is innovative or not”, he told Times Higher Education, ahead of his opening plenary speech at the British Council’s Going Global conference on 3 May.

He added that there are very few highly ranked multidisciplinary journals, meaning that it is “extremely difficult” for young academics doing this type of work to get published.

However, Professor Goldin said that universities should not focus on interdisciplinary research at the expense of advanced work within each discipline.

“It’s not about breaking away from disciplinary expertise. It’s about building on it,” he said. “If you can’t master any one field and really advance knowledge within it in a structured way, you’re unlikely to be able to…grapple with issues that spill over multiple disciplinary boundaries.”

He added that “one of the reasons” for the 2008 financial crisis was that “people lost their ethics, their judgement, and their wisdom” because of disciplinary silos.

Speaking about his upcoming book, Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance, which will be published on 19 May, he said that there is a “real pressure” on universities to be “thinking ahead” and teaching information that will remain relevant when current students “reach their mid-careers”.

He said that “timeless” disciplines, such as Classics and the humanities, often best “withstand rapid periods of change" because they give students a “skill set of enquiry based on evidence, the ability to assimilate lots of rapidly changing information in a curious way and a hunger for learning that remains for them for the rest of their life”.

“If [universities] can impart those things, [they’re] in pretty good shape,” he said.

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