Smurf challenges single-subject Gargamels

Southampton group aims to help mould those who want to break the mould. Elizabeth Gibney writes

September 5, 2013

Academia is rife with examples of discoveries spurred by the bridging of conventional disciplinary boundaries, but there are fears that one group of researchers is missing out.

Fixed-term contracts, performance metrics and a lack of opportunities all conspire to bar researchers in the early stages of their careers from engagement with other disciplines, a group founded to tackle the issue has claimed.

“At a university you’re measured on the research excellence framework, and that’s very discipline-focused,” said Cheryl Metcalf, lecturer in biomechanics at the University of Southampton and one of the founders of the Southampton Multidisciplinary Research Forum (Smurf).

“Working across disciplines can be a challenge for anyone, but for early career researchers you’re always looking for career recognition, and if you’re not contributing, which in today’s terms means the REF, it can be more difficult,” she said.

Bringing together research from several fields also requires a level of networking and mentorship that young researchers struggle to find, especially when formal structures, such as international conferences, do not exist, she added.

Created by early career researchers at Southampton, Smurf has already run a conference (in February 2012) that was designed to stimu-late appetites for multidisciplinary research, building skills and networks among academics and providing information on the support structures available.

A survey carried out at the conference – detailed in the paper “Incorporation of early career researchers within multidisciplinary research at academic institutions”, published in the September 2013 issue of Research Evaluation – found that most early career researchers felt they lacked strong networks outside their primary field, as well as knowledge of research councils’ and universities’ strategies with regard to multidisciplinary research.

Smurf has also worked to involve young academics in Southampton’s University Strategic Research Groups, which were established to reflect a push from the research councils towards multidisciplinary research, something the paper says is now the focus of 15 per cent of their funding.

Dr Metcalf, who describes herself as a “Heinz 57” academic – straddling the disciplines of computer science, artificial intelligence and biomechanics – said the next generation of multidisciplinary researchers would not develop without support.

“It’s not easy to fit a mould if you’re trying to make the mould,” she said.

elizabeth.gibney@tsleducation.com

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