#InterdisciplinaryConversations with Prof. Catherine Lyall

In this first #InterdisciplinaryConversations I spoke to Prof. Catherine Lyall about interdisciplinary careers and evaluation. Cathie is a Professor of Science and Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh with expertise in the management and evaluation of interdisciplinary research, and has recently published a book on “Being an Interdisciplinary Academic: How Institutions Shape University Careers”. As someone who researches interdisciplinarity, Cathie was the ideal person to talk to about some of the challenges of forging an interdisciplinary academic career, and also about how evaluation of interdisciplinary research and researchers might be improved.

Becoming interdisciplinary

One of the interesting things about interdisciplinary research is that it isn’t always arrived at on purpose, and can come about in a haphazard way. Understanding someones background and pathway to interdisciplinarity can help clarify why particular challenges were encountered and also what solutions might be suitable for individuals. Cathie did an undergraduate degree in chemistry, then went into scientific publishing. She then did a Masters in Science and Technology Policy, after which she worked for the British civil service followed by a policy role for one of the learned academies. She then returned to academia is a part time research development officer and a series of fixed term contracts as a research fellow, eventually gaining a professorship at The University of Edinburgh. As Science Policy is inherently interdisciplinary she has always been interdisciplinary, and based on her experiences she developed a scholarly interest in interdisciplinary research and it’s become her object of study.

Watch the video where Cathie describes her own career path.

Mixed messages for interdisciplinary careers

We started with a conversation about careers, and some of the many mixed messages about interdisciplinary careers. In Cathie’s recent publication on Being an Interdisciplinary Academic, she describes the “paradox of interdisciplinarity”, where interdisciplinary research is often encouraged at policy level but poorly rewarded by funding instruments and academic structures. Furthermore, interdisciplinary research has been described as a risky career choice in some of the literature. Cathie emphasised that many researchers are receiving mixed messages about interdisciplinarity, and that they reveal the misalignment between the rhetoric and the reality of interdisciplinary careers. She also discussed that there is confusion around when is the best time to become an interdisciplinary researcher. Even research leaders disagree. Is it better to become interdisciplinary once you’ve established disciplinary excellence and a secure appointment, or does it need to be all the way through a research career? This has implications for research identities, which interdisciplinarians can find harder to develop.

These mixed messages also pervade the literature around how to navigate institutional structures, such as keeping one foot in a parent discipline. This advice would tend to promote the kind of interdisciplinarians who might pursue interdisciplinarity as a sideline, or who sit within a discipline but work in interdisciplinary teams. It chimes with the opinion that interdisciplinarity should not be pursued until you have established a disciplinary excellence and a secure appointment, discouraging those who are interdisciplinary from the start or who don’t fit into any one discipline easily. It implies we have to ‘play it safe’ in order to succeed. Cathie pointed out that many would disagree with this, and that researchers often do their best work when they are younger. However, if the message is to keep one foot in both camps it also encourages the idea that interdisciplinary research isn’t proper research, and reduces the status of interdisciplinary researchers. This debate gives rise to different types of interdisciplinary researchers (described in this I2S blog): those who are actually disciplinary but can work in interdisciplinary teams, and those who have always been interdisciplinary researchers. These two groups will have very different working experiences within universities in terms of their career development and progression.

Career progression is another area that many interdisciplinarians find difficult. Many lectureships require disciplinary teaching, therefore forcing interdisciplinary academics back into a discipline, teaching subjects that they may have little familiarity with. Cathie suggests that if institutions really want to encourage interdisciplinarity that they should look at these contractual anomalies, and really embed interdisciplinarity into their teaching to fully take advantage of interdisciplinary academics skills and knowledge. Cathie is optimistic that things are changing, and that institutional structures are improving. One such improvement are guidelines for promotion for interdisciplinary researchers and teams that Cathie helped develop for The University of Edinburgh. Nevertheless, many interdisciplinary researchers are still encountering difficulties in their academic career progression.

Watch the video of the discussion around interdisciplinary careers.

Dynamics of evaluation panels is key for evaluation

Fair evaluation of interdisciplinary research in funding applications, job promotions, and publications is still a very problematic area. There are a lot of questions that come up around how researchers can feel confident that they will be evaluated fairly, and in line with their disciplinary colleagues. There is often a feeling that funding panels or other evaluators are not always able to assess interdisciplinary research well or fairly, and therefore they may lose out on opportunities more often.

As part of an EU funded project, Cathie ran a workshop with participants from funding organisations and other academics to discuss the application and evaluation process for interdisciplinary collaborative grants. Some of the suggestions of how to improve the application and evaluation process included:

  • to introduce a two-stage application process, with an initial blinded outline followed by an invited full proposal. This might encourage more risk taking.
  • to increase the number of reviewers and evaluators, encouraging all of us (i.e. interdisciplinary researchers) to review more, even if at an early career stage.
  • to improve how the panels are convened and chaired. Panels should include people who have experience and expertise in interdisciplinary research.
  • a more interactive process in the peer review of interdisciplinary applications, with the right to reply to initial feedback followed by further response to questions. Creating a dialogue around applications can help interdisciplinary researchers to explain some of the complexity in their research proposals and increase understanding.
  • remote evaluation rather than a face-to-face panel discussion might benefit those quieter voices.

Cathie summarises, “a lot of this comes down to the dynamics of how these evaluation panels are operating and how they’re constituted”.

Watch the video of the discussion around interdisciplinary evaluation.

Interdisciplinary research isn’t for everyone

When asked why someone should pursue interdisciplinary research Cathie reminded me that, though interdisciplinarity seems to be everywhere at the moment, it’s important to remember that it isn’t for everyone. We still need discipline-based scholars. She says that part of the success of interdisciplinary researchers has to do with the mindset. Are you someone who likes to see the bigger picture? Do you like to see the connections and the gaps between different aspects of your research? Or do you like to go very narrow and very deep? It comes down to personality. “If you’re going to build a career, try and do it on something that interests you”, she says. “It will be harder, so you do have to be committed to doing this”.  On the upside, Cathie goes on to say that there is money in interdisciplinary research at the moment, so on a strategic level it can be pragmatic. Cathie re-emphasises that whether or not you should pursue interdisciplinary research will come down to individual mindsets and what makes you tick as a researcher.

I ask whether being interdisciplinary might actually make you more flexible as to what roles you could apply for and therefore open up more job opportunities. Cathie says it depends on what type of interdisciplinary researcher you are. If you have the ability to provide a particular skill set within a collaboration then you could contribute to a number of different research projects. However, she warns that this might label you as the technician in the team, which might affect your academic credibility. She links this to the question around how we value academic contributions, and that we still value “discipline” excellence. Cathie argues that we should change our value systems, and consider what interdisciplinary academics contribute to an organisation in terms of “meta-skills” around integration, translation, ability to communicate with wider audiences, etc.

Watch the video of the discussion around why interdisciplinary research should be pursued

Resources (in order of appearance or as mentioned)



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