Professor Tom McLeish and Professor Veronica Strang
Stimulus Paper, September 2014
This paper considers the complex challenges entailed in leading and developing interdisciplinary research (IDR) and suggests that, while structural support is vital, cultural change may be equally critical. It argues that, while IDR is commonly encouraged in rather utilitarian terms, as helpful in addressing complex societal and
environmental issues, there are deeper intellectual reasons for fostering collaborative research across disciplinary boundaries. The comparison, exchange and synthesis of specialised systems of knowledge can be transformational, enabling new ways of thinking about and conducting research. Emphasising the overarching unity of
the academy, the paper argues that successful IDR has the potential to reunite areas of knowledge that have fragmented over time. It examines some interdisciplinary experiments in the UK, and considers how the participants have navigated the obstacles that attend each stage of collaboration to produce exciting and coherent outcomes. Articulating the practices and principles that underlie successful IDR, it discusses how universities can assist such research developments, both in practical ways and through cultural and ideological change.
Interdisciplinary research (abbreviated in this paper to IDR) is lauded globally among universities and research funders. It has become one of the necessary emblems of quality, relevance and leadership. But it is also easier to claim than to deliver, and problematic to implement and assess. The complex skill-sets it requires are underdeveloped within higher education; and when its underlying motivations are articulated (which is rare), they are often contested. For example, it may be true that IDR addresses current societal challenges more effectively than research within single disciplines, but such an instrumental motivation alone does not capture the radical effect it can have on academic disciplines themselves, and its capacity to transform the way we think.
This paper complements an earlier contribution to this series,1 which drew on examples of interdisciplinary structures in three American universities. Both papers agree that in achieving successful IDR, cultural change is as important – and possibly more so – than simply creating the right structures. Here we explore some of the underlying reasons for this, and describe some experiments with interdisciplinarity in the UK, offering examples that illuminate good practice in motivation, leadership and implementation.
We are convinced that a fuller discussion of IDR is urgent and important. For although poorly framed IDR can lead to fragmented thinking, it is, at its best, truly transformational of our academic disciplines, and useful in enabling coherent engagement with the wider public.
1 Taylor 2013