Multidisciplinary study gets 'lip service', not cash

June 14, 2012

It is still difficult to win funding grants for interdisciplinary study from the UK's research councils despite "lip service" to the contrary because academics who assess proposals are "nervous" about approving projects outside their areas of expertise.

This is the view of Ian Goldin, director of the Oxford Martin School, which recently announced £6.4 million for work into six "challenges of the 21st century".

The school, founded in 2005 by a $100 million endowment from James Martin, the computing pioneer and author, concentrates on "impact-orientated" research that combines many disciplines.

Professor Goldin said that he wanted the research councils to fund more interdisciplinary study, although not necessarily as a "substitute" for specialist work.

"I think the funding councils are giving increasing lip service to multidisciplinary [research]" while emphasising the need for impact, he said. "But in practice, in our experience...it remains extremely difficult to get support for interdisciplinary work."

He said this was particularly because of the "nervousness" of research council assessors reluctant to approve funding outside their expertise, which on a multidisciplinary proposal might make up the bulk of the application.

"The disciplines have evolved over time and are becoming more specialised," he said. "The question is...how do you come out of these seams [of knowledge] to solve real-world problems?"

Scholars at the Oxford Martin School bid for research council money as well as drawing on funds from Dr Martin's endowment and foundation grants.

The six projects, which will involve 70 scholars in 17 departments, will look at: viral infections; resource stewardship; quantum technology; vaccines; human rights for future generations; and improving the resilience of global systems.

Professor Goldin said that around 15 per cent of the applications for the £6.4 million had been approved, and that successful bids had demonstrated how they would have an impact within roughly 10 years.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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