Interdisciplinary Research: The Silver Bullet for Innovation?

The need for research to respond to contemporary real-life problems has never been greater. The coronavirus pandemic, climate crisis and ongoing digital revolution are just some examples of the way research is called upon to address far-reaching global challenges.

Increasingly, research is expected to serve the needs of societies, deliver solutions and make an impact rather than merely accumulate abstract knowledge. This focus on real-life challenges is reflected in the design of Horizon Europe.

The new framework programme introduces five ‘missions’ that match some of the most urgent global emergencies, including climate change, cancer, marine life and water, and soil and food. Each mission will combine research projects, policy measures and legislative initiatives to achieve a measurable goal that could not be achieved through individual actions.

The majority of these large-scale problems will require close collaboration between researchers from different disciplines. As Dr Arash Hejazi, Editorial Director at Wiley, recently put it: ‘On their own, climatologists cannot deal with climate change, food scientists cannot eradicate hunger and economists cannot abolish poverty.’ What is required instead are approaches that combine, extend and intertwine disparate scientific views and methods in the service of a common goal. In a word, what is needed is interdisciplinarity.

Defining Interdisciplinary Research

Interdisciplinary research has become a buzz word that is often understood as a shorthand for innovation or superior scientific quality. Yet, there is in fact little agreement about what interdisciplinarity really entails. While some organisations (such as the United Kingdom funding body UK Research and Innovation – UKRI) understand interdisciplinarity to include also cross-disciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary work, others draw clear distinctions between these different research approaches.

Another area of dispute is the level of collaboration and interaction that is required between the various disciplines. Is it enough for researchers from different fields of research to work alongside each other towards a common goal? Or does interdisciplinarity require deeper exchange and the integration of techniques, tools, concepts or scientific theories?

At the core of the problem of defining interdisciplinarity is the issue of research disciplines itself. As a 2018 report on interdisciplinary research and review methods by the German research council Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) summarises: ‘The term “interdisciplinarity” is generally used to describe the situation in which representatives of different disciplines work together on research. The term “research discipline” has numerous meanings. It is not possible to define the core of a discipline unambiguously. Therefore, it follows that the limits and transitions between disciplines cannot be characterised either.’

The evolving nature of research disciplines adds to the confusion. Areas of research are dynamic. New areas are continually emerging, melding and transforming. ‘What is considered interdisciplinary today might be considered disciplinary tomorrow,’ as the US National Science Foundation pointedly observes in its definition of interdisciplinarity.

Despite these issues, most funding bodies and scientific organisations have adopted a practical, results-driven approach to defining interdisciplinarity. The UK’s Research Excellence Framework offers one such definition: ‘Interdisciplinary research is understood to achieve outcomes (including new approaches) that could not be achieved within the framework of a single discipline. Interdisciplinary research features significant interaction between two or more disciplines and/or moves beyond established disciplinary foundations in applying or integrating research approaches from other disciplines.’

Research Management for Interdisciplinary Research: ResearchConnect at ARMA and FORTRAMA

Considering the prominent role that interdisciplinarity now plays across the sector, it came as no surprise that the topic was picked up at the annual conferences of two national research management associations this autumn: ARMA in the UK and FORTRAMA in Germany. Idox was proud to continue our partnership with both conferences in 2021 as an event sponsor.

As the UK’s professional body for research leadership, management and administration, the Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) has around 3,000 members across the UK, spanning the higher education, research and charity sectors. Taking place in a virtual event platform, ARMA 2021: Responsible Culture in a Post-COVID World – Inclusion and Change featured 34 programme sessions over three days from 5-7 October.

FORTRAMA is the German network for research and transfer management. It is a non-profit membership organisation that represents people and organisations involved in research management, knowledge and technology transfer, career development, and research funding at universities and research organisations in Germany.

Since 2003, FORTRAMA has held an annual conference intended to connect the German-speaking network of research and transfer managers and offer insights into new trends and developments in the sector. In 2021, the conference was held as a digital event for the first time.

The topic of interdisciplinary research was picked up by a panel discussion during the FORTRAMA Annual Conference on 8 October. The organisers had brought together experts from across the sector to discuss expectations, obstacles and realities in interdisciplinary research.

The panel included representatives from two of Germany’s most prominent research funders: Annette Schmidtmann from DFG and Hanna Weilandt from Volkswagen Foundation. They were joined by Katja Liebal and Stephanie Speidel, two successful researchers who have been working across different disciplines for years. In addition, FORTRAMA had also invited the head of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) in Bielefeld, Anika Haverig. The panel was chaired by the science journalist Jan-Martin Wiarda.

The debate highlighted a number of significant challenges that arise from interdisciplinary research.

How Interdisciplinary Research Impacts Career Development

Working in an interdisciplinary way can pose a significant risk to junior researchers. While both Liebal and Speidel felt that it was extremely rewarding, they also highlighted how current structures in the research sector meant that those who work between or across disciplines can easily fall through the cracks when it comes to career progression and funding acquisition.

Frequently, funding or promotion decisions are still based on metrics of scientific relevance within one particular discipline, Liebal explained. When evaluated in terms of ‘Einschlägigkeit’ (the impact of someone’s research in their field), researchers working with an interdisciplinary approach will often lose out as their scientific contributions span several spheres rather than just one.

The Need for Targeted Funding

For interdisciplinary research to flourish, specialised, longer-term funding is needed. Liebal shared her experience of interdisciplinary work which often required the collaborating partners to develop a ‘common language’ before serious research work could even commence. The usual funding periods are therefore not adequate. Funders must acknowledge the significant additional work that goes into genuine interdisciplinary collaboration.

The Evils of Metrics: Are Narrative CVs the Answer?

The panel also discussed the role narrative CVs could play in supporting the career development of scholars working in interdisciplinary research. Narrative CVs allow for researchers to showcase their achievements not merely through metrics such as the number or reach of publications. Instead, applicants can focus on their overarching goals and motivations, and demonstrate how their research impacts the wider research community and society.

Due to their more open form, narrative CVs may serve those better who work across different disciplines. Yet both Schmidtmann (DFG) and Weilandt (Volkswagen Foundation) acknowledged that narrative CVs still pose a challenge for current review procedures. The additional time needed to field narrative CVs in contrast to conventional ones puts additional strain on already cumbersome and lengthy review processes.

Forgoing quantitative metrics altogether is simply not possible at this point, Schmidtmann admitted. But the DFG also accepts the need for a shift away from a purely number-focussed approach. As Schmidtmann revealed, the funder will shortly launch a new CV template that will offer applicants additional fields to highlight achievements beyond the usual metrics. ‘It’s a compromise,’ Schmidtmann explained.

Interdisciplinary research is not just hype. As all panel members at FORTRAMA agreed, this type of collaborative research is likely to grow in significance over the coming years. What is needed to address the most significant challenges of our generation is research that is willing to look beyond the confines of individual disciplines. The research areas of artificial intelligence, climate research and computational social sciences are already showing the way.

Structural Barriers to Interdisciplinarity

With a session on interdisciplinary ethics review processes, ARMA shed a light on the structural barriers that many researchers working across disciplines face even within the administrative environments of their own institutions.

In her presentation on the creation and implementation of a new interdisciplinary ethics review process at the University of Lincoln, the Research and Governance Manager, Sam Lewis, explained that ethics processes based on subject areas can cause significant problems for interdisciplinary research projects. If their research falls into the remit of several different disciplines, researchers are often required to submit an ethics application to multiple committees. This may then lead to different and even contradictory requests to amend and change the ethics application. Applications are therefore delayed, and researchers are discouraged from engaging in interdisciplinary work altogether.

The University of Lincoln addressed this issue by creating a review process that assesses applications based on their content and not their disciplinary affiliation. Multiple committees for different departments or faculties are replaced by two top-level committees with broad remits such as human and non-human research. At the same time, reviewers are chosen based on their areas of expertise instead of their membership in a particular school or department. All of this reduces barriers and streamlines processes, making it easier for interdisciplinary projects to be reviewed by the most suitable experts.

The discussion at ARMA made it clear that interdisciplinary research poses serious challenges to the traditional structures that are still governing administrative structures at many institutions. To help promote innovation and research excellence, it is therefore important for research organisations to acknowledge and address these challenges. If, as many experts suggest, interdisciplinary research is growing in importance, it will be the organisations that adapt successfully to its demands that will fare best in the future world of research.

Funding for Interdisciplinary Research

In recent years, the international funding landscape has responded to the growing importance of interdisciplinary research. ResearchConnect currently offers information on over 5,000 individual funding programmes and calls that support interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research.

The focus on interdisciplinarity is particularly strong in the context of larger funding programmes such as Horizon Europe, ERA-NET and the EU Joint Programme Initiative, and those offered internationally by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Wellcome Trust. Indeed, more than 30% of such major funding programmes now particularly encourage interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches.

The majority of interdisciplinary research funding is tied to particular application areas. This includes, for example, research on the borderline between AI and health, such as the current NIH call ‘Explainable Artificial Intelligence for Decoding and Modulating Neural Circuit Activity Linked to Behavior’ (S8734; deadline 10/3/22). Another example are projects on the interface between climate science, economics and social sciences, such as the Horizon Europe call ‘Socio-Economic Risks of Climate Change in Europe’ (S21665; deadline 10/2/22). Collaborations between the natural sciences and the humanities are also targeted by the US-based John Templeton Foundation whose ‘Science and the Big Questions Philosophy and Theology Grants’ support research projects that develop new philosophical and theological insights, especially in relation to advances in scientific understanding (S6759; deadline 18/8/22).

In addition to these thematically focussed opportunities, there are a number of national programmes with the purpose of promoting collaborative exchange between the disciplines. Prime examples of this are the DFG Priority Programmes in Germany. The Priority Programmes are specifically designed to support interdisciplinary collaboration and are open to scholars across all fields of research. Through the programme’s structure in two individual funding periods of three years each, applicants are given time to develop adequate collaborative tools and methods that can then be implemented in the second half of the programme.

Investments into the Future

Interdisciplinary research needs more than just direct investments into research projects. To strengthen the future of interdisciplinary research, adjustments also need to be made to the way the younger generation of researchers are trained.

The European Commission has acknowledged this need by making interdisciplinarity part of the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) programme. To support the training and career development of junior researchers, the programme, which is part of the Excellent Research pillar of Horizon Europe, promotes interdisciplinary approaches through its Cofund, Doctoral Networks and Staff Exchange funding lines.

ResearchConnect provides ongoing support for researchers and organisations interested in interdisciplinary research. Our team will continue to report on emerging policy and funding opportunities within this topical and increasingly important field of research.