Five organizational features for successful interdisciplinary research

By Jessica Blythe and Chris Cvitanovic

1. Jessica Blythe (biography)
2. Chris Cvitanovic (biography)

How can significant challenges associated with doing interdisciplinary research be overcome? What are the best ways to build institutional capacity and structures that support interdisciplinary research?

We have identified five key organizational features that enable successful interdisciplinary research. These are based on an evaluation of the Centre for Marine Socioecology in Tasmania, Australia, which brings together disciplinary expertise in physics, law, economics, biology, sociology and governance. We obtained perspectives across all disciplines and career stages from PhD students to the leadership team.

The five organizational features, also shown in the figure below, are:

  1. Support female leadership: The first of our five principles highlights the importance of supporting female leadership across all organizational levels, from centre directors to project and research group leaders. When females are supported to both attain, and to be successful in, leadership positions, it can benefit the broader organisation by: (i) encouraging innovation and creativity, (ii) cultivating a more inclusive research environment, and (iii) removing hierarchical power imbalances that have the potential to derail collaboration among researchers from different disciplines.
  2. Forge partnerships outside of academia: The second principle highlights the importance of forging partnerships outside of universities. When academics collaborate with actors from outside of academia (for example, with policy makers or industry representatives), both the quality of the scientific outputs, as well as their relevance to decision-makers, increase. We identified two specific strategies that can be mainstreamed within interdisciplinary research organizations to help forge partnerships outside of academia. The first is the implementation of knowledge co-production processes, and the second is the use of science-policy boundary-spanners, such as knowledge brokers.‌
  3. Develop impact-based metrics: The third principle is the need to develop impact-based performance metrics. Impact in this context refers to research influence that extends outside the academy to achieve “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life” (United Kingdom Research and Innovation, 2021).
    This is separate from the notion of academic impact, which describes the intellectual contribution of an individual (or group of individuals) to a particular field of study and is typically measured through metrics associated with publication rates, citations rates and other indices such as the h-index.
    This distinction is important for interdisciplinary research organisations that are explicitly oriented towards the identification of socially relevant solutions to complex social-ecological challenges. Thus, their central objective is not simply the pursuit of knowledge, but rather the pursuit of knowledge that informs how societies navigate complex challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, and food insecurity.‌
  4. Seek long-term funding: The fourth principle highlights the need to secure long-term funding to support successful interdisciplinary research. Funding plays a pivotal role in enabling academics to undertake high-quality research in all fields and disciplines, supporting a range of research items and activities, including field and laboratory costs, the salaries of PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, training and partnerships. We found, however, that the importance of long-term funding (longer than 5 years) is even more important within interdisciplinary research settings given the additional time required, and associated transactional costs, to build meaningful relationships founded upon mutual respect and trust among research team members.‌
  5. Cultivate a visible brand: The fifth and final principle is the potential power of effective branding for supporting interdisciplinary research organisations. In this context, branding refers to the development of a unique name, design, and ethos that identifies and differentiates an organization. For example, research organisations can leverage a visible brand to establish their credibility, especially perceptions about the high accuracy, validity, and quality of research outputs.
Five organizational features that enable successful interdisciplinary research (adapted from Blythe and Cvitanovic 2020)

Concluding remarks

Do these features match your experience? Are there other features that you have found to be important?

To find out more:
Blythe, J. and Cvitanovic, C. (2020). Five Organizational Features That Enable Successful Interdisciplinary Marine Research. Frontiers in Marine Science, 7: 539111. (Online – open access) (DOI):

United Kingdom Research and Innovation (Research England). REF Impact. Website. (Accessed 26 January 2021)

Biography: Jessica Blythe PhD is an Assistant Professor with the Environmental Sustainability Research Centre at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. She is an environmental social scientist with expertise in climate change adaptation, equitable ocean governance, and transformations to sustainability. At the broadest scale, her research aims to understand how communities perceive and respond to social-ecological change and their differential capacities for adaptation and transformation. Over the past decade she has worked with communities and colleagues in Australia, Canada, Malawi, Mozambique, and Solomon Islands.

Biography: Chris Cvitanovic PhD is a transdisciplinary marine scientist at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at The Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. He is working to improve the relationship between science, policy and practice to enable evidence-informed decision-making for sustainable ocean futures. He draws on almost ten years of experience working at the interface of science and policy.

6 thoughts on “Five organizational features for successful interdisciplinary research”

  1. Can easily identify with these factors and very well articulated, thank you. The impact metrics are still difficult at times I find but having a framework guides people to what is possible and to be open to how it is likely to occur. Being open and prepared will increase chances of it happening. Impact can grow from early days at different rates and needs to be observed over time. This is part of having a culture of inter-disciplinarity, but also simply put being empathic and wanting to help people make progress. We also find having the right physical space and engagement plans to encourage a diversity of ways for co-workers and inter- and trans-disciplinary teams to meet and interact helps creativity and share perspectives. I guess some of this blends into your ‘brand’ category. Many thanks, Colin

  2. Dear Jessica and Chris, thank you for this blog post. It led me to read your paper on this topic, and I fully enjoyed reading it. Appreciate your reflectivity. I have two comments. One is on developing impact-based metrics, and the other on seeking long-term funding.

    It would be great for institutions to have impact-based performance measures. I was wondering whether you could share your thoughts on the barriers for institutional leaders to have impact-based performance measures parallel with academic achievements. As you rightly pointed out in the paper, early career researchers among others tend to be put off interdisciplinary research endeavour as their performance evaluation has been focused on academic achievements.

    Regarding seeking long-term funding, you provided good evidence on why long-term funding is needed for interdisciplinary research and what concrete activities/events/endeavours need to be funded (e.g. communication and reach-out efforts, the design and establishment of an interdisciplinary research group, networking events). I think these are largely depending on how funders receive and respond to. In other words, interdisciplinary research-oriented organisations could seek long-term findings but whether get such funding or not is not decided by themselves. While acknowledging the importance in seeking long-term funding, I would like to add two aspects: 1) institutional seed fund to support networking, design and formation of interdisciplinary research teams, a communication specialist/public engagement office at the institutional level support by core fund; 2) advocate and drive for the change of funding mechanism.

    Many thanks again for this thought-provoking blog. Take good care.

    • Hi Yan, Thank you for engaging with our paper! From my perspective, many institutional barriers for switching from traditional academic metrics towards more impact-based metrics are created by rigid institutional structures that create inertia that is difficult to change. As we mention, the UK’s program on measuring impact (United Kingdom Research and Innovation (Research England). REF Impact. Website. (Accessed 26 January 2021) demonstrates that those barriers can be overcome. I think we’ll see more impact-based metrics being implemented, which should also create pressure for other universities to follow suit. I agree with your two points about funding. Thanks again!

  3. Thank you Jessica and Chris for the wonderful post.

    As we must have the required personal desire to explore more about research integration and to adopt interdisciplinary research to enable ourselves skillfully and reduce the educational gaps that we have, I see interdisciplinarity-based institutional research and teaching has the real power to drive the change for greater impact. I’m trying to discover more about transformational models towards more interdisciplinary science-based Institutes and organizations, and the structure of Centre for Marine Socioecology is similar to many research Institutes, that makes the key success futures can be widely adapted in different contexts.

    The five features you listed are well articulated and they are easy to understand with the terrific analysis in your published paper. Unfortunately, I see the features you listed as drawbacks we have now in my institution in Egypt, and we have to find a way to reduce gender inequality in leadership, secure long-term funding, mange stakeholder engagement problems, and then we can look at the hassle of metrics to capture specific organizational impact outside of the academy as there are many different variables that affect the impact and the long time to see it happen.

    Thanks again and hope that we can see more about how to transform ordinary research institutes to interdisciplinary science-based Institutes and organizations with more case studies


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