Interdisciplinary research for development impact: How can funders walk the talk?

Authors Directorate, E.S.P.A.
Year of Publication 2018
Type of Publication Policy and Practice Brief


Academic research is increasingly called upon to provide actionable evidence for sustainable development. As the demands for ‘impact’ grow, the limits of single-discipline investigation become apparent. Most funders see interdisciplinary research as an avenue to tackle complex global challenges. Yet this emphasis clashes with an academic culture that remains, to a large extent, within the boundaries of individual disciplines. ESPA has produced a new briefing on lessons learned from partnership working. It is based on a comprehensive review of Ecosystem Services for Poverty Reduction (ESPA) documentation, including project proposals and reports, an online survey and key informant interviews.

Key messages

• Interdisciplinary research takes extra time at every stage: from defining research questions, to agreeing data-collection techniques and sample sizes, to publishing. Project timelines needs to allow for team interaction, mutual learning and flexibility.

• Interdisciplinarity is about keeping sight of the ‘bigger picture’. Team composition should reflect a mix of disciplinary expertise, and also include generalist researchers who are able to work across disciplines.

• Interpersonal relations are crucial to the success of interdisciplinary processes. Facilitation skills are critical, but are generally not prioritised in team composition and leadership.

• Interdisciplinary research requires flexible management. Interdisciplinary enquiries can open new avenues of investigation, and even completely reframe research questions. This unpredictability should be treated as an opportunity not a problem.