The quest for the ‘right’ balance between disciplinary excellence and socially -economically- and policy-relevant interdisciplinary research is best understood in terms of an array of processes operating under diverse and dynamic conditions. There is broad agreement among policy-makers and academics alike that there is scope for science to make enhanced contributions on socially-defined priorities. It is widely accepted that there exist persistent barriers to achieving this and therefore a strong case for deliberation to facilitate interdisciplinary research.
Prominent among the policy instruments currently in place are dedicated resources to enable researchers to conduct interdisciplinary research. However, the experience is that these have only a limited effect on the broad institutional environments in which academic research is conducted, which in general remains hostile or at least unsupportive of interdisciplinary approaches. One conclusion from this is the identification of a need for further coherent initiatives at a broad institutional level, in order to diminish the general disincentives and barriers to interdisciplinarity.
In the UK, possibly the most important barrier to interdisciplinarity lies in the structures and procedures of existing formal research assessment exercises undertaken by funding and evaluating agencies. In an environment of increasing pressure on funding in higher education, inherent disciplinary foci and bias in these exercises are compounded by unintended incentives for strategic behaviour on the part of universities and research institutes. Alongside the more formal structural and procedural issues, there is evidence in a number of contexts for a degree of cultural bias against interdisciplinary research – for example in hiring and promotion patterns in universities.
Under these conditions, there exists a strong a priori case for the systematic and judicious reconfiguring of assessment structures and procedures and for deliberate efforts to address or compensate for adverse cultural attitudes. This may take various forms, including broadening and diversification in assessment panels and greater provision for cross-disciplinary evaluation. It might also involve more serious consideration for social and policy ‘impact’, as well as efforts to take more comprehensive account of collaborative and cross disciplinary practices in research, doctoral supervision and postdoctoral training. This kind of broadening out in research assessment might also include a move away from narrow, rigid discipline-specific metrics of journal quality and associated uni-dimensional scientometric evaluations. Finally, there is room to experiment with transversal or matrix assessment, under which attention moves away from unitary disciplines and towards wider and more representations of research activity, affording greater prominence for issues of social, economic and policy interest, such as Climate change research.
Career paths in higher education are a second area where institutional reforms are needed. Researchers with interdisciplinary profiles face difficulties in obtaining prestigious – and often even stable – academic positions. There is evidence that more flexible university structures may facilitate hiring and promotion of interdisciplinary researchers. For instance, this may be achieved by more widespread adoption of matrix models, under which disciplinary departments are bridged by interdisciplinary research institutes, centres or units. Such an arrangement allows joint appointments and collaborative teaching programmes, which present enhanced options for interdisciplinary researchers to develop stable career paths. Such centres do currently exist, but tend to be perceived by university managers as temporary or disposable assets, rather than as central constitutive features of their organisations.
In summary, for science to enhance its social, economic and policy contributions, existing policies that support interdisciplinary research need to be complemented with broader institutional changes that diminish the barriers it faces.