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Interdisciplinary research: Policy and practice conference

December 13, 2016

British Academy, London, 8 December 2016

 

The event, sponsored by the British Academy, RCUK, and HEFCE, brought together a range of leading academics and practitioners in order to reflect on the place and role of interdisciplinary research within the broader academy.

 

Reports in recent months from the British Academy, HEFCE and other bodies have raised the profile of the interdisciplinary issue within UK academia. Furthermore, its inclusion in the Stern Review ensures that it will remain of significance for the current REF cycle. The meeting was not a critical enquiry into the positive and negative aspects of interdisciplinarity and associated methodologies, with the working assumption being that it was a thing of value and needed pushing forward. For an interdisciplinary Area Studies audience, greater awareness of the levels of interdisciplinary work undertaken on a daily basis in university departments throughout the UK might have been displayed. At the same time, it became evident during the course of the event that the issue with interdisciplinarity is less to do with the work currently being carried out, and more to do with the inadequate nature of formal assessment criteria, support infrastructure and incentive frameworks.

 

The morning sessions explored the broad policy landscape with the HEFCE representative, in particular, providing useful insight into current trends. The recently published HEFCE reports are worth a look in this regard: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/rereports/Year/2016/interdis/Title,110229,en.html .

Discussion during this morning session was general in nature and prefaced the more focussed afternoon sessions which were split into parallel ‘Research assessment and funding’, ‘Research development and careers’ and ‘case study’ sessions.

 

Building on the recommendations found within the Stern Report, there was some discussion about the different ways in which interdisciplinarity might be incorporated into the second REF process. There was, for example, discussion around the use of ‘interdisciplinary’ champions on sub-panels, which was met with general support by those in attendance. Discussion also covered the ways in which interdisciplinarity is currently internalised within the peer-review process. There was broad agreement that existing processes tended to favour proposals with a clearer disciplinary root. As part of this discussion, the Wellcome Trust representative provided a useful insight into its own current research funding activity and made a strong case for its natural affinity with the riskier aspects of interdisciplinary work.

 

There was focussed discussion around the difficulties of advancing a career founded on interdisciplinarity, with the general sense being that this type of career path was difficult to advance in a coherent manner. The considerable range of disciplines represented at the meeting ensured that it was difficult to get any real sense of how to address this perceived issue in an effective manner. At the same time, it should be noted that having attended the ‘Research assessment and funding’ panel, I was unable to attend the parallel panel on ‘Researcher development’ where this issue would have attracted more focussed discussion.

 

In general, it was instructive to note how the link between innovation and interdisciplinarity is largely assumed, although one or two comments from the floor did at least raise the methodological challenges presented by interdisciplinary research. Nevertheless, the potential issues associated with this type of research were largely avoided. In view of the increasingly visible role of interdisciplinary research, there does some scope for the Area Studies community to maintain its input and guidance in this area drawing upon its considerable experience (methodologically, conceptually, managerially etc).

 

More details concerning the event (including the agenda and speakers) can be found here:

http://www.hefce.ac.uk/news/Events/2016/Name,110328,en.html

Jon Oldfield, University of Birmingham

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