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The landscape of interdisciplinary research

UK universities are bracing themselves for the consequences of the Comprehensive Spending Review, the Nurse Review, and wider plans to reshape the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. The recent Higher Education green paper had little to say about how research funding will be managed in the future beyond a continuing commitment to the ‘dual-support’ model that sees some funds distributed through Research Councils and the rest allocated to institutions on the basis of research quality assessments. Indeed, the conclusion of well-informed commentators, such as Professor James Wilsdon, was that the paper signalled a radical overhaul of the UK’s research funding system, but with the detail to be provided by Sir Paul Nurse’s review of the research councils.

Government Ministers have given a clear indication of what is likely to be announced. Over the summer, Business Secretary Sajid Javid suggested that he both expected and supported deep funding cuts, and he controversially engaged management consultants McKinsey to help identify where the knife might be wielded. In September, Science Minister Jo Johnson told Universities UK that he wanted to see a simplification of the system for allocating research funds.

As a result, speculation is heightened over the future of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), and over the likelihood of significant reorganization of the Research Councils. Last month, in an apparent attempt to influence the direction of travel, the Research Councils produced a plan to consolidate activities as a ‘single collective organisation’, and ‘increased collective strategy setting’ with RCUK setting interdisciplinary strategies.

While the ‘Research Councils Together’ plans stop short of a full merger and promise ‘individual council external faces to our communities’, it appears that the research funding landscape will become increasingly ‘inter-disciplinary’ and focused on ‘societal challenges’.

Those who have seen early drafts of the Nurse Review suggest that he will recommend a series of incremental reforms, preserving the seven research councils, but creating a new ministerial-led committee to set overarching strategy and priorities for research funding. It seems unlikely to be a coincidence that in a recent article in Times Higher Education, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport, advocated the value of social sciences and humanities researchers in policy development, citing their role in a research group tackling Ebola. He concludes: ‘I want to bring a broader range of expertise to bear on the workable formulation and implementation of national policy – addressing both the risks and opportunities we face together’.

As a social scientist, I welcome this increasing recognition of the value that is brought to STEMM research by the inclusion of social science and humanities expertise and sensibility. But I am wary that the expectation may remain that these contributions need only come late in the project and are useful merely in addressing policy issues. Successfully delivering the potential of truly interdisciplinary research (rather than mere multi-disciplinarity, where researchers from different disciplines operate autonomously of each other) will require an early and intensive engagement across potential boundaries of language, ontology and objectives, to promote a shared understanding and sense of collective enterprise.

Indeed, there are very real fears that the flat budget funding levels, and simplified institutional infrastructure anticipated following the spending review, will not enable the level of coordination necessary to deliver on the complexities of interdisciplinarity. As Kieron Flanagan and colleagues have recently noted, there is clear evidence that interdisciplinary, challenge-led research ‘requires more – rather than less - investment in strategic management of the funding system: to broker collaborations, facilitate engagement with users, develop meaningful metrics and disseminate outcomes’.

In recent years, individual universities in the UK have been gearing up for an increasingly interdisciplinary research landscape. For example, University College London’s Grand Challenges organizes its research activity around four global issues and is a central feature of its research strategy of fostering cross-disciplinarity.

Imperial College London’s strategy is founded on encouraging multi-disciplinary research, ‘Only by bringing together expertise from different disciplines can we solve today’s global challenges’.

Here at Cardiff University we have been developing a similar approach that embraces the potential for interdisciplinary research to be both excellent in pure research terms, but also highly impactful in addressing societal problems. Recent developments have included the establishment of new research institutes - centres of excellence that span disciplines and address key issues such as crime and security, data innovation, energy and sustainability. A new initiative with Nesta has seen us create a public services innovation lab, Y lab. The lab combines Nesta’s expertise in promoting innovation with the University’s strength in research. Researchers will work closely with practitioners and policymakers to develop and test civic and public service innovations.

One of our most exciting initiatives will see us create SPARK, the world’s first social science research park: a purpose-built facility to co-locate researchers from multiple disciplines, alongside external collaborators from the private, public and third sectors.

I have been working with Adam Price of Nesta to develop the SPARK concept over the past three years. Our paper Social Science Parks: Society’s New Super-Labs, published by Nesta this week, outlines the key ideas underpinning this project. SPARK is a major investment in social science-led interdisciplinary research as part of a new £50M building, also housing an Innovation Centre to promote start-up and spin-out innovation. It will house social scientists alongside other disciplines and external collaborators, creating the space for face-to-face interactions, and the facilities needed to promote the design and execution of truly interdisciplinary work. In Cardiff we recognize the potential for inter-disciplinary research to create new knowledge and beneficial real-world interventions. But we also realize that such a complex and demanding agenda cannot be delivered by business-as-usual approaches to the organization and resourcing of research. It remains to be seen whether the developments in UK research infrastructure that will be announced shortly will also acknowledge these challenges, and be constructed and resourced accordingly.


Rick Delbridge

Rick Delbridge is Cardiff University’s Dean of Research, Innovation & Enterprise and the academic lead for its development of SPARK (Social Science Research Park).