How can research offices foster fruitful interdisciplinarity?
In the previous Research Europe, I broached the question of how research offices can encourage more interdisciplinary research, by asking why we would want to foster interdisciplinarity and discussing some mistakes.
In this second article, I’ll make some positive suggestions for interdisciplinary events, and finish with a few thoughts about long-term, people-based solutions to interdisciplinary challenges.
First, events. Here are six suggestions for organisers, starting with an initially dispiriting but ultimately hopeful one.
1. Lower your expectations
To repeat, interdisciplinary research is hard. So organisers and attendees shouldn’t expect a high hit rate. If we define success as a new collaboration leading to major funding and publications, we’re likely to be disappointed. Better to define it as potential collaborations explored, and sensible decisions reached.
2. Bigger isn’t always better
Don’t attempt to run a big, long, complex event. It’s great to be inclusive, but too broad and you risk a lack of common ground or common language. Longer events are harder for everyone to attend, and people are less likely to bother if they must arrive late or leave early. A programme of smaller, shorter, more focused events will be more effective than a splashy showpiece.
3. Hone the pitch
A good pitch needs to attract the right people but also repel those who will find little value in it. I’ve seen too many events that have little more than a title (usually one open to multiple interpretations) and something vague about researchers from all disciplines being welcome. Proper pitches, definitions, explanations, remit statements, goals and expected outcomes are all important. Get input and feedback on drafts of the event brief, especially from those in the target disciplines.
When an invitation to an interdisciplinary event arrives, every researcher will be thinking about the opportunity cost. If I go to this, what won’t I be able to do, or what will be delayed as a result? Organisers need to help researchers reach the right decisions about attending or not.
4. Don’t rule out online
The post-pandemic received wisdom is that in-person networking and idea-generation events are better. But having attended several outstanding online events, I’m not so sure. Online is obviously more accessible, in terms of actual attendance and being recordable and shareable afterwards. Sharing the recording with a timeline of each of the talks enables those who can’t attend to go straight to those of interest.
5. Thunderbolts from lightning
I’m fond of short presentations, five-minute ‘lightning talks’, with one or two questions maximum. This needs strong chairing and clear briefings for speakers about the right level of detail, given the expected audience. Talks should be calls for collaboration and input on plans for future work, not presentations of past results.
6. Don’t forget follow-up
This is a common oversight. At the end of an event, there ought to be some sense of next steps, and it’s good to remind people of what those are. Even if it’s just a prompt to follow up on discussions. If the event was online, go through the chat and gently remind people of any actions they committed to.
Investing in people
Events tend to treat disciplines as separate and in need of bringing together. But what if we could instead create permanent and lasting bridges between them? How could we do that?
One way would be to have more joint appointments between schools and faculties. This would be almost as hard as interdisciplinary research itself, but with added financial, admin and curriculum complications. Joint PhD studentships are easier, at least for the supervisory team, and can be a great way to cement and build collaborations.
We could look at empowering the interdisciplinarians we already employ. We know who these people are and could offer them roles as interdisciplinary ambassadors, either roving or assigned to a particular disciplinary boundary. Research development managers are often tasked with doing this, but many will lack the academic background and credibility to do all of it.
Formal recognition of the role as part of workload is vital for it to work, and success in it should count towards potential promotion. What is this if not research leadership?
Have I just reinvented the school or faculty or college research director role? Perhaps. But I don’t think this needs to be undertaken by a senior research leader. And if we really want to support and promote interdisciplinary research, maybe it’s best that it isn’t.
This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact firstname.lastname@example.org