Are research institutes fulfilling their interdisciplinary roles in universities?

By Paul Bolger

Paul Bolger (biography)

The number of research centres and institutes within universities has exploded in the last two decades, but how effective have they been in delivering on their interdisciplinary goals?

A key raison d’etre for establishing a research centre or institute is to bring together researchers from multiple disciplines in a particular area of research study, and to foster interdisciplinary collaboration. You don’t have to read too far into mission statements and websites to encounter a goal to be cross-, multi-, inter-, or trans- disciplinary.

The establishment of interdisciplinary research centres and institutes has been a key structural response for universities interested in embedding interdisciplinarity within the university research system, as it enables universities to retain traditional departments while having a locus to address the grand challenges of society in an interdisciplinary approach.

Yet we know little about how well they achieve this role. Are they just a “laundry list” of affiliates and a nexus of loosely connected individuals searching for intersections rather than cohesive groups tackling well-defined problems, as suggested by Diana Rhoten (2003)?

In a survey of two hundred faculty in three sustainability research institutes based in the USA, I found a surprisingly positive view of interdisciplinary research within these institutes. Key findings include:

  • The vast majority of faculty interviewed (>90%) perceive interdisciplinarity to be always or usually essential to address sustainability research questions and challenges.
  • Over 95% of faculty indicate that they are doing research with faculty outside their own discipline; 50% of faculty are spending more than two-thirds of their time working with colleagues outside their own discipline.
  • Over half of faculty members work across the natural-social sciences boundary which is seen as crucial for sustainability science.
  • 99% of surveyed faculty indicated that interdisciplinary research should be a core part of the mission and activities of their institute.
  • More than four out of five faculty indicated that their institute has enabled interdisciplinary research opportunities that would have not have been possible in their home school and would like to participate more frequently in interdisciplinary research.
  • More than four out of five of faculty members perceive that support from the institute is sometimes, usually, or always important to their interdisciplinary research efforts and consider their research institute to play a valuable and supportive role in facilitating their research efforts.
  • Faculty perceive that the important supports that the institute can offer are to provide seed funding for interdisciplinary research projects and to foster an open and visibly collaborative environment.

The study provides evidence that research centres and institutes are fulfilling their mission within universities to bring interdisciplinary teams together to work on relevant research questions, but how generalisable are the results beyond the three institutes studied? What has your experience been?

The exciting challenge for centre and institute leaders is to continue to provide location-specific responses to enable interdisciplinary research teams and projects that faculty perceive:

  • as being intellectually worthwhile
  • will have impactful outcomes, and
  • will support their academic progression.

If you lead such a centre or institute what strategies have you used to achieve these goals? Are there other goals that you have set?

To find out more:
Bolger P. (2020). A study of faculty perceptions and engagement with interdisciplinary research in university sustainability institutes. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 1-15. (Online) (DOI):

Rhoten D. (2003). A Multi-method Analysis of the Social and Technical Conditions for Interdisciplinary Collaboration. The Hybrid Vigor Institute, BCS-0129573, final report for the National Science Foundation, San Francisco, United States of America. (Online):

Biography: Paul Bolger PhD is manager of the Environmental Research Institute at University College Cork, Ireland. He has worked across academia, industry and government for over 20 years developing long term research solutions for global sustainability challenges. He is a 2019 Fulbright-EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) Scholar, as part of which he examined how interdisciplinary research is being facilitated at sustainability research institutes at Arizona State University, Cornell University, Colombia University and Duke University to achieve more robust research outcomes.

10 thoughts on “Are research institutes fulfilling their interdisciplinary roles in universities?”

  1. Hi Paul and thanks for the summary. As you know, even though faculty embrace interdisciplinary teaching and research, some university and research institutional structures can get in the way. A group of interdisciplinary institute leaders recently published a couple of papers outlining challenges and best practices focused specifically on leadership strategies for strengthening interdisciplinarity. See Boone et al. 2020. Preparing Interdisciplinary Leadership for a Sustainable Future. Sustainability Science. DOI:10.1007/s11625-020-00823-9 and Gordon et al. 2019. Forging Future Organizational Leaders for Sustainability Science. Nature Sustainability. 2: 647-649. doi:10.1038/s41893-019-0357-4

        • Paul, I believe that this approach could work very well at research institutes. Some years ago, there was a paper that described “metaphor” as a common language for an interdisciplinary researchers at the Santa Fe institute. I Suspect we can do better than metaphor; and believe that we must do better if we are to understand and resolve our global problems, before they become much worse.

          • Thanks Steven. Yes, agree that it would be a failure of ID work if we had to resort to metaphor as our only common language; ultimately it may not do much to help disciplines work coherently together on shared research questions.

    • Hi Christopher, thanks very much for your comment and for highlighting these publications; I look forward to reading them more detail. I fully agree that university institutional structures are generally not favourable to interdisciplinary research and teaching, and that much of the excellent interdisciplinary work within university occurs in spite of these barriers. I hope that this blog and associated publication points towards how research institutes (and interdisciplinary schools such as at ASU) are overcoming these barriers. I am currently working on another paper which looks at the mechanisms by which institutes enable interdisciplinary research.

  2. Good news indeed! Do you have some sense about what fraction of the (presumably siloed) academic world this represents? And, at what rate the trend might be improving?

    • Great question Steven, thanks.

      As the publication illustrates it would appear that the proportion of faculty engaged in interdisciplinary research could be quite a large fraction of an interdisciplinary institute; however I think that think that this would represent a relatively small fraction of staff within the overall university…I might make a wild guess of about 10%. The key is find mechanisms within the university to facilitate that 10% of academic staff who need, and want, to do interdisciplinary research without harming their opportunities for promotion and tenure.

      I really can’t comment on trends as I am not aware of any work that has looked specifically at this, although the number of publications that cite outside their discipline (a proxy measure for interdisciplinarity) has been slowly increasing over the last decade. For example see King, C. (2012). Multiauthor papers: Onward and upward.


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