Interdisciplinarity: Lessons learned from ESPA and one researcher's career
Full disclosure: I am an unabashed advocate for interdisciplinarity. Of course I value discipline-based research and education, as well; it is just that, to me, interdisciplinarity offers incredible scope for exciting advances in understanding and integrated solutions for complex problems.
I was the first ‘Independent Scholar’ at my liberal arts institution in the US – stretching even its already multi-faceted view of education; my PhD from a zoology department took a quantitative approach to unravelling dynamics of change in the field of biology, thus combining science with history, along with a fellowship in science policy. I went on to posts in which I led and facilitated the emergence of interdisciplinary, inter-sector and inter-institutional initiatives.
As a consultant, I have facilitated and, increasingly, evaluated (and published on) interdisciplinary initiatives, primarily in the UK. The reason for providing this potted history is to underscore how I have met very many people who, through their own career pathways, have gained experience in interdisciplinary work.
I am convinced that experience, when transmuted into sharing of insights, is a real resource that can improve initiatives of the future. I saw this transmutation at work recently in a workshop preceding the November ESPA conference. I facilitated a lively two hours in which some two dozen ESPA project researchers, along with central ESPA staff, contributed enthusiastically to creating an ESPA ‘legacy’.
Participants began by sharing thoughts on the opportunities and challenges of interdisciplinary working. While these key messages are captured in some detail in the workshop report, two points stand out in my memory.
One was the deeply enamoured attitude that was captured more than once by individuals’ citing the ‘beauty’ of understanding made possible by interdisciplinarity. Another feature that I found interesting was the yin and yang of responses; when provided with various quirky photos to stimulate identification of challenges and opportunities, a great many participants chose one picture and articulated both a positive and a negative association with it.
Perhaps this is inevitable with interdisciplinary work more generally: the thrill of pioneering comes with uncertainty as to the obtainability of high-quality results; the excitement of crossing boundaries may be matched with status as a ‘renegade’ in conventionally structured universities; the intellectual camaraderie of developing collaborators in other fields may be correlated with a tinge of loneliness when participating in mono-discipline events; and so on.
The core goal of the workshop was to generate the essence of a guidance document for funders of future interdisciplinary, ambitious initiatives like ESPA. As many a frustrated applicant – or even a well-intentioned staffer or panellist – will know, judgements on proposals can stop interdisciplinarity cold. The funding process is a critical inflection point for interdisciplinarity. (This is true at both the funding body level and, for multi-project programmes like ESPA, at the programmatic level; indeed a few years ago I reviewed several of ESPA’s ‘experiments’ in reviewing and selecting projects.) While calls for interdisciplinary research appear to be on the rise, widespread usage of the term does not automatically equate to informed review and selection processes. Guidance for funders was chosen as a timely legacy for ESPA to pass along.
Workshop participants targeted their insights toward informing prospective funders about what is needed for robust interdisciplinary work to take place. They provided advice for three key stages: calls for proposals; review of proposals; and project implementation. I’ll highlight just a point or two regarding each, which chime with my own observations over the years. Regarding calls for proposals, it is crucial that funders think them through, so that there is clarity in the call itself as to whether or not (or to what degree) interdisciplinarity will actually be valued – and, in fairness, funders must have figured out how to align this message with later review criteria and processes.
Reviewers, especially final review panels, need to be briefed on criteria, in particular that ‘outstanding excellence’ in an interdisciplinary proposal is likely to lie in new synergies, rather than being at the lead of conventional paths within each of the disciplines involved. Making sure that reviewers/review panellists ‘get’ this is a real responsibility for funders, that will involve careful selection of at least some reviewers with interdisciplinary experience or understanding. Regarding implementation, participants highlighted messages such as the protracted length of time that interdisciplinary work can take, the utility of mechanisms such as seed corn or pilot grants and the importance of support for joint meetings, to help teams develop shared objectives and ways of working together toward them.
I would suggest that, with increasing numbers of researchers gaining experience in interdisciplinarity through ESPA and other initiatives, there is an increase in the sophistication with which such individuals can plan steps to make the most of future interdisciplinary teams. In turn, funders and reviewers should look for this sort of informed planning and consider as a differentiator the likelihood that a proposed interdisciplinary project will in fact be implemented successfully.
There is a natural overlap, or interweaving, of key messages across these three stages. I hope that funders find this helpful, as many of them are genuinely seeking to support high-quality and innovative interdisciplinary work, even though it poses distinct challenges by going ‘against the grain’ of conventional mono-disciplinary work. In a sense, I would hope that the workshop also served an additional, more individualised function – providing participants with a stimulating opportunity for their own critical reflection. We are all so very busy that it is sometimes natural just to keep moving on, from one project to the next, without making the time to process explicitly what we have learned from our experiences. And yet, what I find over and over again in evaluation interviews when I ask people for the lessons they’ve learned that could help others, people appreciate the chance to step back and capture, personally, what they have learned that could help them in their own next effort. I would go so far as to suggest that even during a complex interdisciplinary initiative, mechanisms such as retreats, critical friends or formative evaluation can be helpful in stimulating critical reflection that could improve an ongoing initiative in real-time, before it finishes.
About the Author
Laura Meagher (Laura.Meagher [at] btinternet.com) is an independent consultant in strategic change in research and higher education.
Read her co-authored book Interdisciplinary Research Journeys: Practical Strategies for Capturing Creativity, Bloomsbury Academic Press (open access).