Kandinsky abstract painting

Interdisciplinary research needs porosity

As a researcher developer, one of my areas of interest is in supporting and developing interdisciplinary researchers. My own experiences as a post-doc on a large international interdisciplinary research collaboration back in 2013-2018 were at times very challenging. It also had many benefits; I saw a new way of understanding my research and realised the potential in other methods. However, it was only after I left my post-doc and had some time to reflect on the experience that I realised how under prepared I had been for working in interdisciplinary teams. Since I joined the IAD in 2018, I’ve wanted to help other researchers to be better prepared by highlighting the possible challenges of interdisciplinary research and share advice on making the most of the many opportunities it can bring. I started by doing some background research on interdisciplinary research, which quickly uncovered common themes that I shared as a guide for early career researchers.   

Since my initial efforts to understand the issues and challenges of interdisciplinarity, I think we are all still grappling for solutions. Many of the challenges cannot be solved by individuals alone but need system-wide change. Interdisciplinarity is here to stay, and it will only increase as solutions to global challenges demand that different elements are brought together. Funding is increasing for interdisciplinary research (for example, the UKRI cross research council responsive mode pilot scheme), institutes are springing up to foster it, and interdisciplinary collaborations are rapidly becoming the norm. However, to dive into such complex research, researchers need to go in with their eyes open to the challenges and with the acknowledgement and warning that it’s harder and slower. 

So, what can be done? One example is the X-Net. The X-Net is a network of biomedical researchers and MRC research centres who are getting serious about supporting their researchers to pursue interdisciplinary careers and removing barriers for interdisciplinary research. They are not waiting for the system to change, but are charging ahead by building on their innovative fellowship schemes and doctoral training centres, providing bespoke training, widening networks, and guiding funders and institutions to make the necessary changes that will enable researchers to have successful interdisciplinary careers within and beyond academia. This model is one example of how groups of researchers can come together to support and promote interdisciplinary careers and make a real difference to researchers, research and innovation. However, how do we achieve these enabling environments for all interdisciplinary researchers? 

I was invited to facilitate two of the X-Net workshops between July 2022 and January 2023; one on overcoming barriers to research, and another on prioritising interdisciplinary training needs with industry. One of the key ideas that stood out for me from these workshops was the need for greater porosity between sectors, in particular between academia and industry. One of the invited speakers, Prof Rory Duncan, presented an image that stuck with me: a (common) linear academic career path, typically from PhD to Post-docs, Fellowships to Lectureship. However, he then presented an image of what it could look like if that linear career path was opened up to other sectors, allowing movement between them at multiple stages along the career path. The image suddenly became rich with complexity and possibilities. It was a bit like moving from a single straight-line painting to a Kandinsky in one stroke (and the inspiration for the blog header image as well). This resonated with me and the many problems I had encountered with supporting interdisciplinary researchers – how to make sure it is valued and worthwhile, leading to further opportunities and research careers. Porosity allows for research to be a journey, travelling across the leading edge of disciplines and sectors, rather than “arriving” at a set destination (e.g., at a discovery or academic position). 

Furthermore, without the movement of people, ideas and technology between sectors, research, development and innovation (RDI) is stunted and cannot contribute to society or the UK economy effectively. Indeed, the recent independent review of RDI organisational landscape, by Sir Paul Nurse, states that:  

The UK RDI landscape is hard to navigate. There is insufficient permeability of ideas, people and technologies between different RPO sectors, and a lack of transparency, inclusivity, and shared understanding of what these various sectors can offer and provide. Interactions between academia and industry are sub-optimal.” (p.7).  

One of the key recommendations from the review was: 

To understand the benefits of RDI for commercial activities and the economy, a culture change promoting openness, mutual respect, closer interaction, collaboration, and permeability of ideas, technologies and people has to occur in both business and academia.” (p.14) 

This need to increase the porosity between sectors and move away from a linear academic career track is useful in researcher development. If I can reframe the opportunities and for interdisciplinary research to encompass all the possibilities of travelling between disciplines and sectors, then this overcomes the difficulties with career progression in interdisciplinary research within academia. If we can open research careers to genuinely allow for travel across and between sectors, it would make interdisciplinarity exciting and enabling again, and enable to deliver on its promise of innovative research with societal and economic impact. Now, of course, the challenge is to enable genuine porosity between the sectors, and to allow researchers who have left academia to re-enter it at a different stage. Changing how we value and evaluate academic research is key, for example, by feeding into the FRAP consultations to help ensure the next Research Excellence Framework (REF) promotes porosity by allowing for a broader set of research outputs. We also need to change mind-sets and remove risks and stigma (both personal and professional) of leaving academia. Increasing secondments to industry for staff, joint fellowship schemes and doctoral training centres are all ways to increase porosity without increasing risk, particularly for early career researchers. If we can manage to increase porosity and travel between sectors, imagine the opportunities that this would enable and the diversity of experience that it could bring!  

Nurses’ review summarises the opportunities of porosity well:  

 “Ensuring high-quality training, tackling the perceived lack of long-term job prospects, and creating a better understanding of the range of opportunities to move careers between RPOs are important to ensure the sustainability of the RDI landscape. More flexible and better designed training programmes would be a useful step towards relieving some of the pressures faced by early career researchers, who are the ‘engine room’ of UK academic research. These changes would increase research productivity, allow more time for researchers to decide whether they are suitable for a research career, and keep a greater number of talented individuals within the system. Researchers should receive wider training and be made much more aware of opportunities outside academia, because skilled researchers are required elsewhere in the RDI landscape and beyond.” (p.20) 

Nurses’ review presents real hope that the challenges of research have been heard and offers concrete actions for change. Importantly, it includes a more human approach to RDI and recognises the need to value and train the existing wide range of talent and skills required for RDI to thrive. For interdisciplinary researchers, these recommendations will make a real difference to tackling those challenges and barriers to interdisciplinary career progression, making them more surmountable and worthwhile to pursue. The X-Net are one example of how this can be achieved. Now the challenge is to scale this up to the whole RDI landscape.  


Further reads: 

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