Professor John Taylor
University of Liverpool Management School, University of Liverpool
Stimulus paper, July 2013
Our research forms part of the Leadership Foundation membership benefit. Hard copies of this Stimulus Paper have been distributed to all member institutions and the PDF is available for members to download by clicking the image below.
It is now widely acknowledged that many significant research challenges lie at the interface between traditional disciplines. While each of the UK’s Research Councils has funded projects that draw insights from across disciplinary boundaries, RCUK has also recognised the need to develop Cross-Council funding models to support projects that address key challenges beyond the remit of any one Council. These include programmes on global security, health and well-being, environmental change and the digital economy. If publicly-funded research is to represent ‘excellence with impact’, to be world-leading, highly innovative and relevant to the social and economic needs of the day, then funding structures will have to be aligned to the complexity that is required of the research itself. The same processes are taking place within funding agencies across the globe.
This question of alignment is at least as much of a challenge for universities as it is for RCUK. There is an enduring perception that individual careers are best planned when focused on achieving recognition within established disciplines, a view that might well be supported by analysing the impact factors of journals, the management of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) or other criteria that are given considerable weight by promotion committees. Furthermore, most internal academic structures within universities continue to be based on disciplinary boundaries. This means that the management of staff, shaped as it is by resource and workload allocation models, can often present obstacles to interdisciplinary work. One of the major tasks for senior managers in the sector is to find ways of ensuring that the structures and cultures of their organisations support those interdisciplinary collaborations that address the most complex of research challenges. In addition to this, there is an increasing demand from employers for degree courses that prepare graduates for the wide range of tasks they will face in specific professional contexts. The content of these courses will often need to draw on a variety of different disciplines. This will require vigilance if opportunities for educational developments of this type are not to be held back by inappropriate protectionism at disciplinary boundaries.
In this timely ‘Stimulus Paper’ John Taylor addresses this increasingly pressing set of concerns by drawing on research he has undertaken at three leading institutions in the United States of America: Brown University; the University of Michigan; and the University of Washington. Each of these institutions has established a strong reputation for supporting interdisciplinary working practices. The paper provides
detailed examples of good practice and it assesses ways in which these institutions have sought to maximise potential for fruitful collaboration across subject boundaries. The issues addressed include institutional culture, organisational structure, financial arrangements, staff management practices and infrastructural planning. One of the significant findings of the paper is that while organisational arrangements are important, it is the culture of an institution rather than its structure that would appear to be most critical for success in this regard.
I commend this paper to all those interested in facilitating interdisciplinary collaboration. It invites us to think about how best to create enterprising and competitive institutional cultures that are characterised by mutual respect, openness and an appropriate tolerance of risk-taking. Achieving the cultural transformation that is prescribed here will help the sector not only by fostering interdisciplinary work that will have positive research and educational impacts, but also by creating an environment in which academic excellence can thrive.
Professor Shane O’Neill
Dean of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
Queen’s University Belfast
In recent years, the importance of encouraging research that spans traditional disciplinary boundaries has become a priority in higher education. In part, this reflects growing emphasis on the 'big questions', such as health or the environment; it is also associated with the move towards more applied research. Funding bodies commonly place a particular emphasis on interdisciplinary research. In response, many universities make very bold statements about their commitment to interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research. However, it is not clear that internal organisational arrangements always match such statements; in particular, resource allocation, staff development and line management are often still based around more traditional discipline-based organisational structures. The relationship between interdisciplinary research centres and departments or schools is commonly a cause of uncertainty and tension. How should leaders in higher education respond to this challenge? This paper considers this issue by looking at experience at three US universities. Based upon interviews with university leaders and managers, and with researchers working in interdisciplinary institutes and centres, the paper shows the importance of clear structures and organisational frameworks, but also the need for flexibility, discretion and common purpose bringing together leaders and managers with researchers, the concept of 'flexible formality'. The paper also offers a wide range of more practical ideas for creating an institutional environment within which interdisciplinary research can flourish.