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Why is interdisciplinary research so often the exception, not the rule?

When the size of the prize is so great, why is interdisciplinary research so often the exception, not the rule?

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Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine being asked to build a research-led, higher education ecosystem from scratch. A system expected to help solve some of the world’s most complex, intractable and important problems. I’ll make a bet that not one of us would start in the place that academia finds itself today.

When I sat down to write about interdisciplinary research for this first edition of Queen Mary Connect, my first thought was: actually, this is a topic that would benefit from fewer words and more action. Accepting the many good intentions and despite the evident truth that we need to work more effectively across disciplines, as a sector we are struggling make progress when it comes to combining academic perspectives in pursuit of better research outcomes.

Does this matter? Unequivocally, yes.

It matters first and foremost because our world has become so much more complex. Consider the macro challenges we face: the catastrophe of Covid and our preparedness for future pandemics; a tsunami of digital disruption washing through society, our economy and culture; the existential threat of human-induced climate change and the sustainable future of our planet. These problems cannot and will not be meaningfully addressed in academic siloes.

Interdisciplinarity also matters if we care about universities as effective and responsible pillars of society. Imagine, for example, the positive impact on diversity and inclusion if barriers between disciplines simply no longer existed. It would transform our ability to understand the nature of problems and respond to them in a more equitable, informed way.

There is a clear resource imperative too. Universities are exceptional places, but being exceptional does not exempt us from optimising our resources. When the default setting is to stick to our academic lanes, inefficiency is the inevitable outcome. There has never been a better time to fix this, but I would contend that, as a community, we have only just begun to exploit the catalytic potential of today’s knowledge and communications networks.

When the size of the prize is so great - for every one of us as academics; for universities; and for society at large - why is it that interdisciplinary research so often remains the exception, not the rule?

We can point to leadership and management, we can talk about culture, and we can champion the need for more and better communication. The biggest single problem, however, is fundamentally structural. The higher education landscape is full of all the right intentions and all the wrong incentives.

In the spirit of this piece, let’s look outside of my discipline of law - to economics - as an example. The hierarchy of economics journals is well-established and those rated most highly tend not to publish interdisciplinary work – yet career prospects for economists depend on being published in these journals. The gap between our rhetoric of valuing interdisciplinary work and the incentives of publication and promotion may be stark in the field of economics, but it is present to some degree across academia.

Publishing is not the only case in point. Wherever we look, there is opportunity to better align incentives towards encouraging more interdisciplinary behaviours. What if headcount budgets allowed for academic appointments to be aligned to multiple schools or faculties? What if the Research Excellence Framework truly valued cross-disciplinary work? And most important of all, what if performance reviews and promotions criteria were intrinsically linked to driving collaboration across disciplines?

I’m not saying that progress is not being made. The creation of our new University Research Institutes and entities like our Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IHSS) of which I am proud to be its Director, is evidence of a commitment to nurture collaborative work between colleagues in different schools. In many ways this sort of initiative should come naturally, we are distinctive among research-intensive universities for the diversity of our community and we know from experience the value different perspectives can bring and the ground-breaking work this can create.

This development represents a big first step to making interdisciplinary research the norm but both here and across our sector, we should be under no illusion that there is much more work to do.

By Professor Kate Malleson, Professor of Law at Queen Mary University of London

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