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Institutional bias deters interdisciplinary research

Wednesday, 3 August 2016 12:07 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Interdisciplinarity is in vogue right now. From policymakers and fundersto anthropologists and biologists — everyone seems united in the view that interdisciplinary research will guide the search for solutions to the ‘grand problems’ of our time. Yet despite agreement about the virtues of greater collaboration between different disciplines at the EuroScience Open Forum in Manchester, United Kingdom, last week, the consensus that interdisciplinary research is hard to get off the ground was just as prevalent. 

At the summit, I heard that recent outbreaks of infectious diseases such as Zika and Ebola highlighted the difficulties of implementing scientific findings at a local level in the countries affected. Delegates stressed the need for natural scientists to work with social scientists to look beyond technical solutions and ensure that the results of research were relevant and actionable in a wide variety of contexts. 

“The Sustainable Development Goals cannot be achieved unless we integrate social sciences and natural sciences,” said Peter Gluckman, chief science advisor for New Zealand. “There is a strong need to marry social sciences and humanities with natural science in order to tackle global issues.”

During one session, the audience heard that for academic institutions to fully embrace the solutions-oriented research agenda needed to tackle complex global problems, research organisations had to re-evaluate existing review-and-reward mechanisms. 

Robert Jan Smit, director-general for research and innovation at the European Commission, explained that the current architecture for interdisciplinary research seriously threatens researchers’ ability to tackle problems such as poverty and contribute to global development. “The core fundamental issue in Western science is the reward and assessment system,” he said. “So long as academia continues to reward people for staying within their discipline, we are not going to get the changes that are needed to these sorts of problems.” 

During a session on what drives interdisciplinary excellence, researchers from across Europe highlighted traditional peer review processes as a cause of concern among researchers engaged in interdisciplinary research. Many researchers were concerned that referees lack the skills needed to accurately assess papers’ impact or methodology, blocking interdisciplinary researchers from high-impact journals and subsequently disincentivising top researchers from straying out of the confines of their own discipline. 

I spoke to Wilhelm Krull, secretary-general of the Volkswagen Foundation, who said there will always be great demand for academic rigour in knowledge production, but that researchers and institutions must be open to careful experimentation to accommodate a shift towards interdisciplinary research. Experimentation, he said, “should not do away with expert panels but make the whole process more transparent and participatory”. 

Krull added that opening up the peer review process to members of civil society, as well as anyone else who might be interested, would help modernise the process itself and ensure that interdisciplinary research is fully supported and researchers are provided with the credit they are due. 

The conference left me with a strong impression that the current research environment subtly discourages interdisciplinary research. Given the role of such research in solving the nexus of challenges around poverty reduction, climate change and economic growth, this is a serious problem. Research organisations can borrow tools from interdisciplinary research to address unintentional institutional bias against the emerging field. Surely, opening up traditionally closed and internal processes such as peer review to groups with other ways of thinking, including those outside of academic institutions, can help foster important discussions and solutions while making research more relevant and accountable.