What is interdisciplinarity? Is it, as the authors of a recent study on the subject by the Wellcome Institute describe it as, ‘a term that everyone invokes and none understands’?
Certainly it seems that the discourse of the interdisciplinary is everywhere. Universities are busy promoting collaborative frameworks, breaking down subject barriers; research councils invite bids for funding on wide-ranging ‘themes’; and everywhere there are ‘synergies’, ‘hubs’, and ‘centres’. Schools and departments are merged; individuals are physically relocated to work in close proximity with those from other disciplines. Horizontal networks abound. Discursively at least, the days of the disciplinary silo seem dead.
But definitions of interdisciplinarity are less easy to agree on. A purist view might see interdisciplinarity as work which not only comes from several disciplines, but that reflects on – or even challenges – the nature of the disciplinary framework, generating new methodologies and fresh paradigms of knowledge. But more prosaically, interdisciplinarity seems to be used as a stand-in for what used to be called cross-disciplinarity – which could be defined as work that might bring together several disciplinary perspectives or approaches, but leaves the framework of the disciplines intact (see, for instance, Engines of Growth, a 2015 publication by the Russell Group universities, which describes interdisciplinary work simply as ‘spanning two or more research areas’).
So whether interdisciplinarity is a meta-narrative that has the disciplinarity itself – its origins, its hierarchies and priorities - as a primary object of study, or stands for collaboration across disciplines more generally – it is clear that the general trend in UK HE is to make interdisciplinary research a priority.
HEFCE and Interdisciplinarity
In 2014 HEFCE released the results of its review of interdisciplinary research published in the UK and 8 comparator countries (Brazil, China, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, USA) between the years 2009-2013.
While the overall report showed an upward trend (‘UK interdisciplinary research activity is growing in intensity, in line with a global trend’), the news was not good when it came specifically to the REF. Interdisciplinary research in all 9 countries had a lower citation impact, and a supplementary study of outputs submitted to the REF showed that there was ‘a lower proportion of the most interdisciplinary outputs than has been observed for the UK as a whole’.
Career Development and Interdisciplinarity
Part of the problem for the pursuit of interdisciplinary research remains structural, and self-perpetuating. While undergraduate teaching may increasingly embrace forms of interdisciplinary learning, would-be academics tend at higher levels to specialize in single-area or cross-area disciplines. By and large, job opportunities map onto those disciplines. It is possible that early career academics and entrants to the profession may find their interdisciplinary approach makes them attractive to more than one discipline, but academia remains a conservative profession in this regard, and interview panels tend to look for strength within a discipline, rather than across several.
REF Structures and Interdisciplinarity
Academics in turn are required by institutions to produce outputs in journals or with highly-regarded publishers, in order to be eligible for return in the REF and to be able to submit grants for research funding – all of which are the mechanisms by which careers advance or founder. And many such publication outlets remain largely single-discipline or comparative (but not necessarily interdisciplinary) in their approach.
Impact and Interdisciplinarity
There has been talk that the forthcoming REF (2020) may feature interdisciplinarity as a significant component of impact case studies, although this has not been confirmed. If this is the case, it would seem to be an attempt to address some of the concerns about assessing interdisciplinary research as outputs. But it remains to be seen quite how this will work in practice.
So while universities may by and large continue to talk the talk of interdisciplinarity, it is worth the while of both individual researchers and units of assessment to keep a close eye on how in practice HEFCE proposes to put in place measures that might address both the structural obstacles to pursuing deeply interdisciplinary work - whether such measures might include light touch citation measures, encouraging a broader frame of reference for publication outputs, and in particular, building interdisciplinarity into impact case studies.