LARGE, COMPLEX ISSUES REQUIRE INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH
Solutions to be found at the interface between disciplines Professor David Budtz Pedersen from Aalborg University believes that interdisciplinary collaboration in research will be crucial in the future. The challenges and issues we are facing today cannot be solved by individual disciplines. He shares this opinion with both local and international external grant givers.
He has authored the report: Mapping of Instruments and Initiatives to Support Interdisciplinary Research and Innovation among Danish Research Funding Agencies and International Programmes.
The report was prepared in collaboration with the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy. The conclusions of the report indicate that, although there is a willingness, there are also several challenges for interdisciplinary research projects and external funding.
David Budtz mentions the corona epidemic as an example of a global crisis that was not a monodisciplinary issue. "Corona is a textbook example of an issue that transcends disciplines. This also applies to climate change and digitalisation. There is nothing wrong with having specialist knowledge; it’s a vital asset. But specialists cannot solve problems on their own. Solutions are found at the interface between disciplines. We need specialist academic disciplines to work together," says David Budtz.
Interdisciplinary science is not easy, but it is necessary
Interdisciplinarity is not always easy, and even less so when researchers from across main academic areas have to work together. David Budtz’s research has examined how academic diversity can create completely new solutions, but it has also demonstrated that projects with high diversity must be nurtured by committed research leaders. He suggests that management and organisation of interdisciplinary projects requires new tools if the project is to succeed. “You have to take care of the infamous add-ons, for example when you invite an ethicist or communication researcher to undertake a work package that may be necessary to obtain funding, but which is not an integral part of the project. Instead, we need to reset the hierarchy and its prejudices and accept that solutions can arise unexpectedly and by mixing knowledge from different disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences. It can be a little difficult to have to listen to researchers from other disciplines and disregard your own academic discipline. But we must to be willing to take more risks if we are to achieve major breakthroughs in research, such as breakthroughs that could point towards solutions for climate change," says David Budtz.
Bridge builders can help move the process forward
Significant barriers to interdisciplinary science are the incentive structures and silo mentality within science. For the most part, researchers gain acclaim by publishing in specialist journals within their own discipline, and not by working with others across disciplines. At least this has been the case for many years. David Budtz points out that interdisciplinary science requires that universities, councils and foundations support the entire value chain from project to implementation, publication and evaluation.
"You have to think of interdisciplinary science as a joint responsibility between the grant recipient and the funder. And you often have to supplement interdisciplinary teams with bridge builders who can maintain overview and link people together. Linking specialists is almost an academic discipline in itself. We can call them bridge builders, and they are characterised by solid social and communication skills,” says the professor.
The task of universities and grant givers
Academic specialisation is, and always has been, important to scientific progress. However, this is also why there are no clear instructions on interdisciplinarity in foundation programmes. "Everyone’s playing away, unlike when you’re monodisciplinary. Interdisciplinarity does not have a single method and an obvious theoretical apparatus. Applicants are left somewhat stranded in no-man’s land. They don't really know what they’ll be assessed on. People are used to expressing themselves in a way that their colleagues understand. That’s the challenge - for the assessors as well," says David Budtz.
One of the main conclusions of the report Mapping of Instruments and Initiatives to Support Interdisciplinary Research and Innovation among Danish Research Funding Agencies and International Programmes is that there is great interest and support for interdisciplinary research. Many consider it a great opportunity. So everyone has to make an effort: university management teams, foundations and researchers. David Budtz believes they can do the following, for example:
Foundations and councils can be better at cultivating interdisciplinarity and articulating their success criteria. They should recognise interdisciplinary articles published in less distinguished journals. Possibilities to publish interdisciplinary research have improved, although members of a recruitment committee do not consider interdisciplinary journals as prestigious as monodisciplinary journals.
University management teams must create structures and environments that promote interdisciplinarity, including by hiring bridge builders. And they can give seed money to application groups. Management teams should signal that they are interested in interdisciplinarity and should support the organisational culture that surrounds it.
Researchers should bite the bullet regarding interdisciplinary projects and embrace them, rather than keeping to a monodisciplinary project with add-ons. In practice, this means researchers should read a foundation’s strategy and values and do everything possible to clarify the foundation’s thoughts on interdisciplinary research, what they want to achieve by a specific call and how they will assess it. And then read between the lines. When research councils and foundations grant funding, they expect a return on their investment and solutions to the challenges the world is facing.
Read the report “Mapping of Instruments and Initiatives to Support Interdisciplinary Research and Innovation among Danish Research Funding Agencies and International Programmes” here (in Danish).
Contact the Research Support Office if you need help with an interdisciplinary research project.