by Sondra N. Barringer Erin Leahey Misty Ring-Ramirez and Karina Salazar
9th September 2021

Our team collected a broad array of data on all research-intensive universities in the United States (N=158) to study the scope, precursors and consequences of their commitment to interdisciplinary research (IDR). In recent decades, research policy, stakeholders, and funding sources have increasingly encouraged universities to engage in IDR because of its presumed ability to spark innovative research and to address complex problems. 

Are universities truly committed to fostering interdisciplinary research, or is there still a degree of lip service being paid to the idea? 

We explored this question in a paper published in 2019, in which we developed a measure of universities’ structural commitment to IDR. There are many ways universities can foster IDR, but developing and maintaining research centres and departments requires funding and planning and is thus a good indicator of long-term, structural commitment. We used computational methods to analyse the names and descriptors of thousands of centres and departments. We found that the universities vary widely in their structural commitment to IDR. 

University commitment to IDR varies in systematic, and sometimes surprising, ways. For instance, prior research and cultural perceptions of commitment to IDR led us to expect that Stanford and Arizona State Universities would have high scores on commitment to IDR, but their scores are low (Stanford) to average (ASU). Universities that are part of the prestigious Association of American Universities and that have higher revenues and investments in research and development, such as Harvard and Columbia, have higher structural commitment to IDR, as do universities with a medical school and hospital. Universities in the southern United States and technical universities like MIT and CalTech are, on average, less structurally committed to IDR, perhaps due to a greater focus on spanning domains (industry, government and academia) than disciplines. 

What more do universities need to do to foster effective interdisciplinary research?  

The first thing to realise when thinking about how universities can foster IDR is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. This was a key finding in a second paper from our project. We also provide evidence that internal dynamics (i.e., the actions of individuals) play a key role in fostering structural commitment to IDR. In addition, we find that different factors are associated with that commitment at different institutions. For example, at universities with medical schools we find that when researchers engage in IDR, this heightens their university’s level of commitment to IDR. In contrast, at universities without medical schools, we find that engagement by researchers really needs to be supplemented by support for IDR from administrators in order for the university to achieve high levels of structural commitment to IDR. This makes sense given administrative control over budgets and strategic planning.  

These results suggest that universities need to be attentive to both bottom-up faculty engagement as well as top-down administrative support and to how these two can potentially be reinforcing. Other research suggests universities can also (1) provide physical spaces and explicit incentives; (2) establish and encourage a culture that supports IDR; and (3) similar to the top-down support we studied, integrate IDR into strategic plans, missions and core initiatives. We would also suggest, given the lack of a one-size-fits-all model, that universities look at others within the field that have similar resources, are of similar size, and perhaps most importantly of similar cultures and structures, rather than just aspirant peers, to see what they have done that works or doesn’t. Learning from each other, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, can save time and money when done well. 

Does making such transformations have a tangible effect on the amount of interdisciplinary research being produced?

In short, the answer is yes. Before embarking on our project, we realised that there had been no large-scale quantitative assessment of whether universities’ commitments to interdisciplinary research are successful in fostering interdisciplinary research. This catalysed the work of our third paper. The question we ask is: To what extent, if at all, do universities’ structural commitments to IDR actually bolster research, and interdisciplinary research in particular? Building on some case studies and small-scale comparative work, we expected structural commitments to IDR to be effective in spurring IDR activity. We found that structural commitments to IDR in one academic year (2012–13) did have a positive, significant effect on the interdisciplinary research produced two to three years later. This was true for the number of interdisciplinary articles published (by scholars affiliated with the university) and for the number and dollar amount of grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). However, universities’ structural commitments to IDR had no positive, significant effect on interdisciplinary awards granted by the National Science Foundation (NSF). We suspect this is because NSF programmes are more diverse and distinct than NIH’s problem-focused divisions (e.g. cancer, mental health), and they are also more likely to award grants to individual principal investigators rather than teams of researchers (or even centres) at a single university. 

In sum, we found that universities’ commitment to IDR, as manifested in their organisational structure, is related to, and potentially spurs, interdisciplinary research and interdisciplinary grant activity (from NIH, but not NSF). These results suggest that efforts to develop and reorganise academic units are not futile; rather, when value commitments are made concrete via research units like departments and centres, they can work as intended.  

Has the COVID-19 pandemic posed particular challenges for those taking an interdisciplinary approach to research? 

While our work focused on the scope, precursors and consequences of university commitments to IDR, recent scholarship assessing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on global scientific research suggests several challenges for interdisciplinary researchers. Shared concern for addressing the global crisis and developing effective vaccines increased interdisciplinary COVID-19 related research at the initial outbreak of the pandemic. Much of this early research was driven by international collaborations (predominantly China, USA, UK) and interdisciplinary teams without prior collaborations. However, as the pandemic has continued and intensified, most COVID-19 research has been produced within countries and across smaller research teams. These findings suggest the pandemic has shifted the geographic and team structures of interdisciplinary research collaborations. Researchers working across disciplines may be facing pressure to prioritise within-country collaborations and domestic research needs amid growing geopolitical tensions (e.g. US leaders blaming China for COVID-19’s origins). Findings also suggest that the pandemic’s urgency may be driving interdisciplinary scholars to work within smaller, familiar teams that can work more quickly and efficiently, which may be to the detriment of developing research that is more scientifically novel. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has also posed new opportunities – such as faster time to acceptance, growth in pre-print platforms and improved remote collaboration technologies – which may reinforce pre-pandemic structures and pressures that foster IDR.  

Sondra N. Barringer, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Southern Methodist University. Her work focuses on the organisation, governance and finances of higher education institutions.

Erin Leahey, PhD, is Professor and Director of Sociology at the University of Arizona. She studies innovation in scientific research.

Misty Ring-Ramirez, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Austin Peay State University. Her work focuses on organisations, social networks and social movements.

Karina Salazar, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education at the University of Arizona. Her work focuses on the enrolment management practices and policies of higher education institutions.

Acknowledgements: This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation, Science of Science and Innovation Policy Directorate under grants SMA-1461989 and SMA-1461846. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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