By Jessica Blythe and Chris Cvitanovic
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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): https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2020.539111
United Kingdom Research and Innovation (Research England). REF Impact. Website. https://re.ukri.org/research/ref-impact/ (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.