Facilitating serendipity for interdisciplinary research

By Catherine Lyall

Catherine Lyall (biography)

How can institutions facilitate the serendipitous encounters that so often appear to characterise interdisciplinary careers? Is there an inherent hypocrisy in university leaders, research funders and policymakers claiming that they want to facilitate interdisciplinarity and then not creating the conditions that experienced interdisciplinarians say they need in order to foster this style of working?

Here I examine the importance of informal interactions, physical locations, the ‘small stuff’ and ‘slow research.’ I draw on interviews with British academics (at various career stages from postdoc to professor) whose doctoral studies had been funded by deliberately interdisciplinary studentship schemes. For more detail, including the sources of the quotations, see Lyall (2019).

Informality is crucial

Finding the time and space for informal discussions with colleagues is critical. What seems to be important is frequent, sustained dialogue (“bumping into people from different disciplines, while you’re having your coffee”) rather than one off events (“a workshop here, a sandpit there”). Senior academics of all complexions inevitably reflect back on the halcyon days of their time as postdocs, ruing the loss of that institutional culture that promoted “freedom,” “proximity to other people” and “the ability just to have a chit chat over coffee, come up with interesting ideas, perspectives that nobody had ever thought of before.”

A place to grow?

Communal spaces and informal meeting points (those “conversations in the corridor”) are important. Yet, when space is at a premium, it is these social spaces that are often turned into offices or teaching spaces. Less than a generation ago, universities would have an active university staff club where colleagues would eat together regardless of discipline, resulting in a lot of “accidental relationships” (Aldrich 2014: 55). None of the UK based universities that I visited seemed to maintain this staff club tradition, perhaps as a consequence of growth or, more likely, changing work cultures and increasing time pressures.

The disadvantages of universities being situated across multiple campuses, offices remote from the main campus or departments split across two buildings should not be underestimated:

[I]t’s about a ten minute walk but boy does that make a difference … it’s not the same thing as popping next door or meeting someone at coffee and being able to discuss your ideas.

Facilitating the small stuff

The ‘small stuff’ is about personal networks that:

  • are enduring (“You can look up experts in your department but it’s nowhere near the same as knowing that that was the person I sat next to when I did my PhD”)
  • arise through unexpected routes (eg., meetings with new colleagues on a picket line)
  • require creativity and personal responsibility
  • need mutually respectful spaces where “anything goes” and “it’s fine if you don’t understand something.”

This is related to the “strength of weak ties” (Granovetter 1973):

[I]t’s not exactly obscure stuff, you know about innovation and where it comes from and trying to create lots of weak ties across different networks, trying to maintain lots of different networks. There is actually theory behind this stuff and it flies in the face of what we’re told to do, which is target the topics everyone else is working on, target the big funding schemes that everyone else is targeting, target the top 10 journals that everyone else is targeting.

These weak ties are characterised as “indispensable to individuals’ opportunities and to their integration into communities” (Granovetter 1973: 1378) in contrast to strong ties, which encourage local cohesion but ultimately lead to fragmentation. In other words, strong ties are likely to foster cliques (as one might define a discipline), whereas weak ties are more likely to connect members to a breadth of different groups.

Interdisciplinary research as slow research

It is generally recognised that interdisciplinary research usually takes longer to produce results because, inter alia, of the extra time needed to access new literature, learn new concepts and perhaps build and foster dialogue within a new research team. Leahey et al. (2017) have shown numerically that this slowness contributes to a “productivity penalty” where interdisciplinary scholars gain greater prominence through citations but are less productive than their monodisciplinary peers with their publication output.

In their blog post on how transformative knowledge is co-produced, Stirling and colleagues urge us to resist the pressures of modern academia and describe interdisciplinary (or, in their case, transdisciplinary) encounters with research partners as a form of “slow knowledge” where these projects are not just “one-off” but reflect relationships sustained over time.

The Slow Science Manifesto (Slow Science Academy 2010) calls for time to ”misunderstand each other, especially when fostering lost dialogue between humanities and natural sciences” and points out that science needs “time to fail.” If contemporary academic life is indeed typified by “distractedness and fragmentation” (Berg and Seeber 2016: 90) what does this mean for interdisciplinary integration, which by Orr’s definition, is the very opposite of fast knowledge:

Fast knowledge is mostly linear; slow knowledge is complex and ecological (Orr 2002: 40).

Concluding questions

As an interdisciplinary community, can we create opportunities to step back and think through issues and processes related to the generation of high-quality interdisciplinary research? If interdisciplinarity is characterised by “slowness,” what implications could that have for career choice given different institutional environments (interdisciplinary research centre versus traditional university department, for example)? How do researchers who are striving for ways to establish more meaningful interdisciplinary research engagements, (often through less structured, serendipitous encounters) avoid becoming anathema in the modern academy?

To find out more:
Lyall, C. (2019). Being an Interdisciplinary Academic: How Institutions Shape University Careers. Palgrave Pivot: Cham Switzerland. (Book information): https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9783030186586

Aldrich, J. (2014). Interdisciplinarity. Oxford University Press: Oxford, United Kingdom.

Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78, 6: 1360-1380.

Leahey, E., Beckman, C. M. and Stanko, T. L. (2017). Prominent but Less Productive: The Impact of Interdisciplinarity on Scientists’ Research. Administrative Science Quarterly, 62, 1: 105-139.

Orr, D. W. (2002). Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention. Oxford University Press: Oxford, United Kingdom.

Slow Science Academy. (2010). The Slow Science Manifesto. (Online): http://slow-science.org/.

Biography: Catherine Lyall PhD is Professor of Science and Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh, UK. Her career at the University of Edinburgh has progressed from part-time Research Officer to Personal Chair via numerous research contracts within grant-funded research centres and a period as Associate Dean for Research Careers. She has brought this experience to bear in the book described in this blog post. She is a science policy researcher and evaluator of knowledge exchange and interdisciplinary research activities who has acted as a consultant to a number of public bodies including the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Scottish Funding Council, and the European Commission.

13 thoughts on “Facilitating serendipity for interdisciplinary research”

  1. What a great article Catherine! Every line rang true. I spent six months in 2019 on a Fulbright studying interdisciplinary research at sustainability institutes for four US universities and interviewed over 80 faculty. One of the things that really struck me was that, when I asked about how such-and such interdisciplinary project arose, it was often through informal and not formal meet-ups. This made me think about whether there is something in the in-planned nature of the accidental and informal meetings that is more likely to produce something novel and intellectually interesting that the pre-planned meeting with an agenda.

    • Goodness, I thought I did well getting through 25 interviews! Have you written up this work – I would be very interested to see it. Time and again, my respondents were contrasting the value of bottom-up versus top-down interdisciplinary initiatives within their institutions and it was one of the many mismatches between the rhetoric and reality that I identified in my book. Thanks for the comment, Paul.

      • Hi Catherine, thanks for the reply. I am currently in the process of writing up two papers at the moment from the Fulbright. One is focused on survey data and more quantitative; the second is focused on the interviews and qualitative and probably more relevant to the discussion here. Happy to circulate once (and if!) they get published. The difference between bottom-up and top-down is a really interesting question. What is the difference particularly in terms of quality of interdisciplinary work? My gut instinct is that bottom-up is better quality as I suspect that much top-down is driven by the need to get funding and may be inter- or even multi-disciplinary in “name only”. There is a significant need to evaluate the nature and quality of the interdisciplinary work in these top down projects.

        • Hi Paul I’ll look forward to reading more about your work. Certainly, a number of my interviewees expressed concerns that their universities were simply “following the money” and were not making an institution wide commitment to ITD research with all of the ramifications that that might have for academic careers.

  2. Facilitating the small stuff “requires creativity and personal responsibility”: this phrase stood out to me as particularly significant. Facilitating enduring and effective personal networks within complex and demanding collaborative contexts does require the willingness and ability to interact with people creatively. There are some specific creative personal habits people can form, and I explore some of these here: https://cuttingedgepartnerships.blogspot.com/2019/11/how-to-develop-collaborative-meta_20.html .

    On the subject of informality, the introduction of ill considered IT systems often erodes and destroys pre-existing and valued informal ties and understandings that enable unexpected issues to be addressed and unexpected opportunities to be grasped; IT can become a barrier between people that severs helpful informal relationships and understandings that have evolved within the informal margins of day-to-day discussions and work. I explore (a little) how to ensure IT does not overwrite pre-existing and important informal relationships here: https://cuttingedgepartnerships.blogspot.com/2019/03/secrets-of-successful-collaboration-17.html .

  3. Thank you for this–specifically, for compiling the work habits that lead to fruitful and unexpected collaboration. In different contexts (regarding peer review and Responsible Research and Innovation), Britt Holbrook describes serendipity as “sagacity regarding opportunity.” That idea seems applicable here also–serendipity is not blind luck. It results from making certain kinds of opportunities happen and having the skill and receptivity to identify them.

    • Thank you for this reminder about Britt’s work. The academics whom I interviewed for this book made similar comments about the importance of doing the ground work and having a supportive environment.

  4. Nice piece Catherine, I agree wholeheartedly with your comments but leaders do have the opportunity to play their part. One way is to remove the constant “my lab”. “my group”, “my institute” that seems to be the narrative that academics aspire to. Where is the “our” in the “my”? How can we change the culture when PhD students see those who succeed or plan to succeed in focusing on the “my”? retain the spaces where the sparks from interdiscipilnary interactions happens. Leaders can be vigilant (not walking past) siloisation. Another is to close down (or not allow to form) individual coffee rooms in labs and create a single space for congregation. Have morning teas where Q&As can happen with organisational leaders or issues can be raised – this brings in people from across the organisation. You talk about “slow science” – I was lucky enough to have some sponsored by the leadership team within CSIRO in the 2000s. This led to enduring relationships between folks from broadly different backgrounds, geographies and world views. We got to know each other as people.

    • Hello Iain, good to hear from you. Thank you for these comments. This is perhaps less of a problem in the social sciences where we are much less likely to have “labs” as such. Nevertheless, I can rarely bring myself to talk about “my” research and am much more likely to say “our” as you suggest because so much of what we do as researchers is a collective endeavour, building on the work of others..

  5. This article absolutely nails my experience of both my University experiences and the marginalisation and invisibility that results from these institutions and the people in them. Firstly, the basic assumption is that all Uni lecturers know more than their student/s. Consequently that student is not invited to the table of mutual learning in any meaningful way. Their research gets corrupted through the process and the source of this knowledge becomes dispensable. Secondly, the idea of quality over quantity in knowledge generation and dissemination is actively discouraged and not rewarded – often punished. Finally, conventional wisdom insists on maintaining its authority over all knowledge by constantly subsuming everything it comes upon into existing understandings (feminist writers argue this endlessly). This article is such a breath of fresh air … thank you for sharing it.

    • Hello Mary. Just to echo your point about “quality over quantity”, I have a quote on my screen that says “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance” (I think it is Kurt Vonnegut) and this epitomises for me much of what happens currently in academia.


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