Practical actions for fostering cross-disciplinary research

By Yan Ding, Justin Pulford, Susie Crossman and Imelda Bates

author_mosaic-images_ding_pulford_crossman_bates
1. Yan Ding (biography)
2. Justin Pulford (biography)
3. Susie Crossman (biography)
4. Imelda Bates (biography)

How can we facilitate cross-disciplinary research in practice? What practical actions are considered important for participating in cross-disciplinary research? How do these actions change at the individual, research team/programme and institutional/funder level?

Cross-disciplinary research approaches allow for the interchange of knowledge and experience to stimulate innovative responses to complex research challenges.

Individual researchers

The individual researcher requires certain personal attributes for effective participation in cross-disciplinary research. They should:

  • recognise its value
  • have the motivation to explore new ideas
  • be willing to learn from other disciplines.

This requires confident researchers, ready to face the unknowns of working outside of their own disciplinary boundaries.

Pushing disciplinary boundaries can make researchers more prone to negative emotions. Courage and commitment to working collaboratively can offset these through the generation of creative analyses, outputs, theories, and a better understanding of one’s own discipline. Expanding into a more diverse scientific community also provides the potential for network development and collaboration.

Research teams and programmes

Good leadership is the core component for fostering cross-disciplinary research at the research team/programmatic level. Good leaders should:

  • take time to develop and communicate their vision
  • manage the expectations of the diverse team
  • encourage defining and framing research problems collaboratively, working to a common conceptual framework.

Through clearly defined roles, a good leader can build a team of experienced and early-career researchers, recognising complementary expertise. A good cross-disciplinary research leader can strike the fine balance between providing mentorship to less experienced researchers whilst also identifying and minimizing academic and discipline hierarchy.

Personal qualities of a good leader – trustworthiness, transparency, and openness – nurture a psychologically ‘safe’ space and allow for open communication. Good communication and open discussions are essential to agree on approaches for methods of working, data analysis, the split of resources, workloads, credit (eg., authorship) and the relationship with funders.

Good communication and open discussions can also assist in conflict prevention and management. When encountering frustration, reassess the reasons for, and maybe reconfigure, the cross-disciplinary approach. However, as important as it is to work collaboratively, team members who cannot find ways to work together productively should be disengaged; tensions can be alleviated by planning for respectful exits.

Research brokers can facilitate communication among disciplines. Communications specialists can be particularly useful for engaging local stakeholders and organizing and expanding collaborative networks.

Research institutions and funders

There are numerous actions that research institutions can implement to promote a successful cross-disciplinary research culture, including:

  • establishing institutional structures such as dedicated cross-disciplinary research centres with common administration infrastructures
  • allowing for shared spaces such as offices, study sites, and meeting venues
  • appropriate use of incentives – especially faculty incentives and institutional seed money
  • facilitating networking and matching research collaborators
  • disseminating and promoting cross-disciplinary research-specific funding information
  • initiating and maintaining cross-disciplinary research mentorship schemes.

Funders have an important role in shaping a diverse cross-disciplinary research culture with their ability to dedicate funding for such research and commission research on cross-disciplinary communication and coordination. However, there is also an important non-fiscal role they can play such as supporting cross-disciplinary research through:

  • flexible review processes for funding applications
  • linking researchers across disciplines
  • engaging with universities and academic publishers for better recognition of cross-disciplinary research
  • engaging policy makers when the research is policy relevant.

Final remarks

It is worth remembering that the practical actions we have presented here at different levels do not exist in isolation, rather they are interconnected across the cross-disciplinary research lifecycle. Whilst some require dedicated funding to implement, others are low-cost.

What has your experience been with cross-disciplinary research at the researcher, leader or institutional/funder level? Do you have additional tips to share?

To find out more:
Ding Y, Pulford J. and Bates I. (2020). Practical actions for fostering cross-disciplinary global health research: Lessons from a narrative literature review. BMJ Global Health, 5, e002293. (Online – open access) (DOI): http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjgh-2020-002293

Ding, Y. (2019). Tips for conducting cross-disciplinary research. Multidisciplinary Programme to Address Lung Health and TB in Africa Programme (IMPALA), Multi-disciplinary Capacity Development Project (MUDI), International Bulletin #1, December 2019. (Online): https://www.lstmed.ac.uk/sites/default/files/content/projects/files/MUDI%20Bulletin%20December%202019.pdf (PDF 228KB).

Biography: Yan Ding Ph.D. is a post-doctoral research associate at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the UK. She is a social scientist working in global health with research interests in health system strengthening, research capacity strengthening, and science for cross-disciplinary research in global health.

Biography: Justin Pulford Ph.D. is a senior lecturer at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the UK. His current research activities focus on the design, measurement and evaluation of programmes designed to strengthen research capacity in low- and middle-income countries. In addition, he maintains a broad interest in implementation research designed to strengthen health systems, disease control programmes and community-based health improvement initiatives.

Biography: Susie Crossman is a research impact and knowledge translation officer at the Centre for Capacity Research at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the UK. She works with colleagues to measure, evaluate, and evidence the impact of the Centre’s activities, and in addition, supports the Centre’s aim (through the implementation of research projects) to ensure that its research translates into practice and improves health outcomes.

Biography: Imelda Bates Ph.D. is a professor in clinical tropical haematology and Head of the Centre for Capacity Research at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, and an honorary consultant haematologist at the Royal Liverpool Hospital in the UK. In addition to the Centre’s research into how to design, measure and evaluate programmes to strengthen research capacity and laboratory systems in low- and middle-income countries, she has a particular interest in evidence to improve the supply and use of blood for transfusion in low- and middle-income countries.

21 thoughts on “Practical actions for fostering cross-disciplinary research”

  1. Fantastic piece, thank you for distilling this useful set of practical actions – what I think so many of us are hungry for as we collectively tackle large, interlinked problems. My own experiences in exploring integration across disciplines originated largely from working in an nascent intersectional field, in a multi-institutional interdisciplinary center with 10 years of funding. This relative stability within a sea of uncertainty allowed our leadership a level of experimentation and investment in integration (of data, ideas, methods) that would not have been wise to “risk” in a research environment with a shorter runway. It’s almost as if large network, long-term research can serve as a form of institutional tenure, affording (and perhaps even morally obligating?) recipients to take larger risks for the purpose of advancing evolutions in knowledge creation that require broader, more fundamental changes to the way we do things. As I read your piece it occurred to me how much relief I feel upon seeing critical cross-disciplinary behaviors and decision processes named and explicitly recommended. I think this relief comes from the fact that we are often navigating institutions and cultures where the needs for enabling and incentivizing cross-disciplinary efforts may exist, but the acknowledgment and concrete support for them has not caught up. Essentially – we know these practical actions are needed, but we don’t always know how to sell, enable, or demonstrate them meaningfully.

    My reflection on this piece brought this question to mind: have you given any thought to a stratified scale of recommended actions for individuals, teams, institutions and funding decision-makers across a spectrum of their resources (career stability, monetary resources, time horizon, etc.)?

    Reply
    • Thank you very much for sharing your reflection, Christine. Congratulations for working in a multi-institutional interdisciplinary centre with 10 years of funding. We need more and shall make big efforts to get more such opportunities/positions. I am glad you felt much relief upon seeing these practical actions. Thank you for letting us know.

      It would be great to develop a stratified scale of recommended actions for individuals, teams, institutions and funders across a spectrum of their resources. We focus on the individual and team/programmatic levels at the moment due to the resources available to us. We shall share our findings in the near future.

      Reply
  2. Thanks for your very interesting insights and tips. I have a couple of thoughts about this based on UK cross-disciplinary research experience in local government (i.e. outside of academia, if that is of interest to you):
    1. The point about the interconnectivity of the practical actions across the cross-disciplinary research lifecycle is a valuable one. It led me to ponder whether:
    – the research institutions and funders hold the ‘ace card’ in enabling such partnerships at research teams and programmes level
    – the research teams and programmes level in turn hold the ‘king card’ in enabling and nurturing individual researchers:
    – individual researchers are then enabled to hold the ‘queen card’.

    Thinking of the interconnectivity between the three levels ‘flowing’ the other way around, it’s perhaps much harder work, finding or creating connectivity from individual to research teams to research institutions, requiring a degree of lobbying and finding like-minded networks of people to increase influence. Whereas the research institution/funders themselves are potentially in a good first position to decide ‘chocks away!’and catalyse this exciting, though challenging, cross-disciplinary/practical arena. See also https://collaboratecic.com/a-whole-new-world-funding-and-commissioning-in-complexity-12b6bdc2abd8

    2. I’ve worked on local and sub-regional multi-disciplinary and multi-agency strategies/projects requiring cross-disciplinary research. Under these circumstances, it can sometimes be helpful if the working partners are persuaded to commit to a relatively small annual contribution to joint working, which can then create a modest pot to fund:
    – cross-disciplinary research that has been identified by working partners as being of shared interest and practice.
    – a single facilitator and/or a research and development project tasked with progressing research-based work which is of shared interest and often of a longer-term nature than the individual partners, who can be ‘fire-fighting’, could manage. A single post with a cross-disciplinary focus can work wonders with a modest level of funding.

    This means that, in my experience, multi-disciplinary partnerships of practitioners can themselves foster cross-disciplinary research and practice at relatively modest levels of localised joint funding – whether focused on achieving improved health outcomes or in addressing any other issue of real-world complexity that spans disciplinary specialisms.

    To sum up, and raise a couple of questions about practical actions:
    – research institutions/funders perhaps hold the ‘ace card’ in fostering cross-disciplinary research to address issues of complexity – does this resonate with those in academia?
    – relatively low-cost cross-disciplinary research can also be fostered through multi-disciplinary partnerships of practitioners at the local level (outside of academia) – how could links be improved between academia and practice in terms of orchestrating and more effectively resourcing cross-disciplinary research?

    Editor: for an explanation of “chocks away” see: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/chocks_away

    Reply
    • Hi Catherine, thank you for your thoughts and comments, good food for thoughts. You saw the research institutions/funders, research teams/programmes and individuals as the ‘ace card’, the ‘king card’ and the ‘queen card’ and considered the interconnectivity between the three levels a two-way “flowing”. I understand and to a large degree agree with you based on my literature review and interview data. What I want to add is that the interconnectivity is three-dimensional rather than a linear one. For instance, individuals bypass research teams/programmes to influence research institutions and funders based on their accumulated knowledge, experience and reputation. I fully agree with you that to drive changes at research institutions and funders requires a degree of lobbying and finding like-minded networks of people. What I would like to add is to constantly engage with institutions and funders. For example, showing research institutions and funders what works well and what doesn’t, including research management and evaluation; demonstrating the benefits of cross-disciplinary working; developing tracking indicators and evaluation guidelines for cross-disciplinary research.

      Your 1st question: research institutions/funders perhaps hold the ‘ace card’ in fostering cross-disciplinary research to address issues of complexity.– does this resonate with those in academia?
      For sure research institutions/funders have great influence here, but maybe not the ‘ace card’. A more legitimate reason to do cross-disciplinary research is that such a research approach could better address the proposed research questions than a single disciplinary approach. If it is only because funders/research institutions require researchers to do so, it may not work well according to my literature review and interviews. The link you shared about “a whole new world funding” mentioned the importance of motivation to solve complex social problems. I think such motivation to a certain degree refers to similar aspect I raised here.

      Your 2nd question: how could links be improved between academia and practice in terms of orchestrating and more effectively resourcing cross-disciplinary research?
      It’s relevant to the discussions Paul Bolger and I had in the following comments which I would not repeat here. I like your suggestion on having a single facilitator to do ‘fire-fighting’ who is funded by organisational core funding instead of research project money.

      Reply
      • Thanks for your reply, Yan: much appreciated. I absolutely agree with your point that there is further potential connectivity between the levels than the ‘linear’ ones I described: it all depends upon highly motivated individuals – sometimes, just a small well-networked group can be a significant influence in practice (as Margaret Mead famously pointed out), but they can tend to work outside the norms of their organisations and are not career-bound, tending to be ambitious for the social/sustainability outcomes of their work and not necessarily their own careers. I really hope this situation may be improving now!

        1st question: That’s very interesting that you say if funders/research institutions require cross-disciplinary research it may not work well. I would still suggest that research institutions and funders could really help to spark the transitions required to help address issues of complexity that are always cross-disciplinary, so there is something here about explaining clearly the reasoning behind the appropriateness of the approach (as well as demonstrating the benefits, as you say) and so gradually achieving a critical mass to change behavioural norms.

        2nd question: I’ve read your discussions with Paul Bolger with interest and you may be aware of the Local Government Knowledge Navigator initiative which sought to improve links between academia and the work of local authorities: https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/local-government-knowledge-navigator.pdf. Prior to that there was the Local Authority Research Councils Initiative, with many references to health, (http://nora.nerc.ac.uk/id/eprint/16937/1/LARCI_newsletter08.pdf), so there is quite a long history…leading towards endeavours within the current context of UKRI (https://www.ukri.org/).

        Just to be clear, the single inter-agency facilitator or R&D post I referred to is able to progress identified projects of shared interest and with a longer-term focus that the usual short-term ‘fire-fighting’ position that many individual organisations find themselves in. Many people in organisations are (or believe they are, which amounts to the same thing) time-starved. But the key point is the same – that there is scope for a reasonable level of cross-disciplinary, localised or place-based research funds to be fostered from organisational core funding, especially when there is a partnership group of several organisations (e.g. I worked on one that had over thirty agencies and authorities).

        So, marrying up your/Paul’s discussion with the above, perhaps it may be an idea to put in place some form of ‘buddy’ system (not hugely expensive) of cross-disciplinary pairs working from the research institution level and inter-agency facilitators (whether local authority-based or elsewhere), whose shared focus is to devise robust cross-disciplinary research questions (I would also argue that arriving at good research questions is, in itself, a form of research)? This may already be happening, hopefully!

        Thanks again for such an interesting blog.

        “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

        Reply
        • Hi Catherine, my apologies for coming back to you late. Thank you so much for your reply. I really like the quote from Margaret Mead. Thanks for sharing it.

          Indeed, research institutions and funders have key roles to play in enabling cross-disciplinary research (i.e. multi-, inter-, trans-disciplinary research), especially in changing behaviour norm in critical mass. I think one important aspect to be enhanced is the assessment of cross-disciplinary research. For example, when funders release grants for interdisciplinary research, it’s helpful if funders specify what an interdisciplinary research approach means, and make interdisciplinarity one of the evaluation criteria. Researchers (more researchers) then probably would show in their proposals why to have such an interdisciplinary research approach, how the disciplinary knowledge will be integrated, how interdisciplinarity will be reflected in the project outputs and outcomes, and what will be the tracking indicators.

          I didn’t know the Local Government Knowledge Navigator Initiative and the Local Authority Research Councils Initiative. With great interest I read the case study and the newsletter following the links you provided. Thank you so much for sharing them. These initiatives are very encouraging. I will explore more in this regard including inter-agency facilitators, and think about what can be learnt from these initiatives for implementation research in global health.

          Thanks again for your thoughts.

          Reply
  3. Good suggestions; and I appreciate the multi-level view! On the personal level, it is all good to say “be courageous.” However, that is not always easy. Can you offer a series of simple steps an individual researchers might take to reach out beyond their disciplines and connect with other researchers?

    Reply
    • Good point. Indeed, it is not always easy to reach out beyond one’s primary discipline and connect with other researchers. Personal attributes such as recognising the value of and being motivated to do cross-disciplinary research are important. On top of these, the following steps could facilitate the process of reaching out and make the reaching-out effective:
      1) having a clear reason/purpose to reach out beyond one’s primary discipline (e.g. to answer a specific research question needs to have expertise beyond one’s primary discipline.)
      2) seeking information on whom to approach and asking for support in matching with would-be collaborators (e.g. from university research offices, research leaders, colleagues)
      3) devoting time to cross-disciplinary networking (e.g. attending seminars and conferences that are not limited to one’s primary discipline; attending meetings that aim to foster cross-disciplinary research collaborations)
      4) learning about others’ research perspectives and approaches (e.g. self-learning, learning from peers through discussions, clarification, interactions)
      5) allowing for critical self-reflection on assumptions of involved disciplines and the decision-making processes when working in a cross-disciplinary research project/programme

      Reply
        • Sure, Steven, directly surfing google scholar to identify and reach out to relevant scholars is a good suggestion. Good point. And as I mentioned before, most people are generous to share their knowledge etc. Asking peer researchers or colleagues at the research information office to match with would-be collaborators may have slightly higher success rate for collaboration.

          Reply
  4. I enjoyed reading your blog. I was particularly interested in the actions that institutes can take to enable cross-disciplinary research as I think research institutes are in a position to reach across to many academic disciplines within the university, and be a key structural support for inter- and cross-disciplinarity. You have identified many of the ways that institutes can do this; did you consider the identification of cross-disciplinary research questions and areas in which to bring academics together as something institutes can also support?

    Reply
    • I am glad you enjoyed reading the blog. Yes, I do think institutions can also support cross-disciplinary research through the identification of cross-disciplinary research questions and areas in which to bring academics together. To do so, at the institution level, leadership with a strong cross-disciplinary research drive is necessary; at the implementation level, a dedicated facilitator/coordination team is important. I did not consider institutes’ support in identifying research questions. Good point. There are lots of centres established due to the identification of cross-disciplianry research questions and areas.

      Reply
      • Thanks Yan for your reply. I think a lot of this comes down to having the right kind of people in leadership and facilitation roles in institutes. Having leaders, managers and staff who have an interdisciplinary mindset and track record, a big picture approach, and who can makes links between academic knowledge and problems presented by outside stakeholders can really catalyse cross-disciplinary work. It makes it easier if this is someone’s job in an academic setting!

        Reply
        • I cannot agree with you more, Paul. According to my observation, there are senior researchers who make links between academic knowledge and problems presented by outside stakeholders. They tend to make cross-disciplinary research happen. The issue is that senior researchers are always too busy and have too many other responsibilities. Whereas early/middle career researchers may have thought about making the links, they could be discouraged to do so as such efforts take time to generate research outputs which puts them in a disadvantaged situation for research career progression. A lot of this comes down to having the right kind of people as you pointed out. Some people may be happy to take up such a role. In a team structure, setting up an implementation coordinator position to constantly engage outside stakeholders in cross-disciplinary research could be of great help if it is possible. At the institutional level, creating and sustaining such a position(s) could definitely catalyse cross-disciplinary work.

          Reply
  5. Thank you very much for this interesting post. I would like to ask how these “practical actions” need to be adjusted in times of the covid-19 pandamic? Especially early-career researchers are struggling because empirical work is a challenging task currently.

    Reply
    • Indeed, the covid-19 pandemic has changed lots of circumstances, and it makes face-to-face interactions difficult and empirical work challenging as you mentioned. Effective communication is particularly important. At the team/programme level, an agreed-upon virtual platform for information and documents sharing and discussions is particularly useful, as well as adjusting the research timeline and activities based on specific situation.

      It is a challenging time and I understand early career researchers with empirical work are struggling. On the one hand, making time to communicate with colleagues and beyond, raising concerns and asking for support, and adjusting research plans. I realised that many people are generous in providing support. On the other hand, taking this period to navigate your career path, revisit your career plan and adjust the focus and sequences of work if necessary. For example, you may have four main responsibilities to climb the research career ladder, and these include doing research, securing research grants, supervising students/junior staff and teaching. You may have certain competencies that you would like to strengthen, for instance academic writing, leadership skills, negotiation and communication skills, and learning about another relevant disciplinary knowledge. You may have existing data to analyse and write-up. It could be helpful to do a careful analysis of your circumstances and update your plan on your capacity strengthening, research and other responsibilities.

      Reply
  6. Thanks for this interesting post. I appreciated reading your insights, especially those related to engaging policy makers. One thing that comes to mind is that some of us (perhaps many of us?) have arrived at a preference for inter-, trans-, cross-disciplinary work because our ultimate aim is to address wicked problems (economic inequality, social injustice, etc.). That is, we perceive the inter-, trans-, cross- disciplinary research possibility as a possiblity to ask and answer new questions that lead to more equitable distribution of power and resources. I’d like to read some of your thoughts about using trans-, cross-, inter-disciplinary appraoches to address persistent problems of inequality.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment and question. If I understand you correctly, you consider using cross-disciplinary (i.e. multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinary) research approaches to answer new questions leads to more equitable distribution of power and resources. Based on our literature review and empirical data, such approaches do not naturally address problems of inequality (i.e. academic and discipline hierarchy). One barrier to conduct cross-disciplinary research is unequal power between disciplines and due to academic seniority. A leadership style appreciating and encouraging contributions from various disciplines is particularly relevant here. Specific approaches to achieving a hierarchical balance include ensuring each member strikes an equilibrium between leading and following, and contributing to and benefiting from team efforts; undertaking pacing actions to allow time to integrate new members and ideas; and asking early-career researchers for their insights and feedback to ensure the opportunity to contribute.

      Back to your question on equitable distribution of resources. Here I mainly refer to research funding including budgeting for human resources. Our research shown that ‘equal resource for each discipline’ could compromises the research quality in cross-disciplinary research programmes. There is a tension between equal money and support for everybody and enough money for everybody to do good quality research. Budget should be justified by research aim and activities.

      Reply

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