Eight ways research institutes enable interdisciplinary research

By Paul Bolger

Paul Bolger (biography)

One of the most substantial structural changes and investments to support interdisciplinarity within universities has been the widespread establishment of research institutes. Many have made the pursuit of interdisciplinary collaboration a central goal in their research mission. Biancani and colleagues (2014) have likened research institutes to a semi-formal organisation occupying a plane between the formal university and informal research teams. Membership of the semi-formal organisation is voluntary and researchers and groups can flexibly come together for short or long periods and depart when no longer needed.

How do these entities establish collaborative communities, and create the conditions necessary for effective interdisciplinary research?

I suggest there are eight ways research institutes are enabling interdisciplinary research within their organisations and universities, which can also be strengthened in future.

1: Institutes as a large and valued network of faculty interested in a particular research issue

Within an interdisciplinary network, faculty must be able to find each other easily, know who has the relevant expertise, and be able to connect in a manner where there is a high likelihood of successful collaboration. For example, a sustainability research institute serves as an enabling network and the connective tissue across the university linking research scholars with expertise in environment and sustainability. Institutes can make a real impact on reducing the transaction costs of finding collaborators across disciplines.

2: Institutes as trusted convenors and honest brokers

Institutes can act as trusted convenors for bringing together faculty from different disciplines who would not otherwise meet. Faculty may be hesitant to engage with interdisciplinary work if it is initiated by a particular academic school or likely to be dominated by a particular discipline. In this regard, institutes can act as an impartial central operator to avoid giving one unit more importance. The approaches for convening include seminars, brown-bag lunches, annual receptions, barbeques, brainstorming sessions, monthly book clubs, retreats, thematic working groups and rapid response teams for funding calls.

3: Institutes as a supportive community of scholars for interdisciplinary research

Institutes can provide a “secondary home” for faculty in addition to their primary home school or department. Research institutes can provide a place for intellectual interdisciplinary companionship, which is enjoyable and stimulating.

4: Institutes as a locus for big interdisciplinary ideas and questions

One of the strengths of interdisciplinary research approaches is application to solve specific issues. These real-word problems and questions can be considered to be boundary objects for faculty to converge around and can be used by scholars from different disciplines to catalyse interdisciplinary synthesis without losing their own identity. A research institute can be a locus for the generation of boundary objects, research ideas and questions, which require interdisciplinary expertise and which are large enough in scope to necessitate contributions from a range of disciplines.

5: Institutes as skilled facilitators for interdisciplinary research

Interdisciplinary research takes more time, effort and commitment from faculty to overcome epistemological differences, understand dissimilar methodologies and build research questions of common interest. Institutes can play a vital role in facilitating interdisciplinary projects, bringing theoretical knowledge and practical experience to bear on interdisciplinary projects particularly in the early stages as faculty work out where they might contribute, how they can co-create research questions of mutual interest and how they can bring different methods to bear on the research question. Few other entities within the university have this capability.

6: Institutes as a voice and advocate for interdisciplinary scholarship within the university

Institutes can legitimately speak on behalf of a large cohort of faculty who are engaged in interdisciplinary research and be a powerful champion for collaboration between disciplines. Institute directors have a voice at the senior leadership table within universities and are in a position to ensure that interdisciplinary scholarship is defended and recognised.

7: Institutes help attract and retain interdisciplinary research talent

The presence of an interdisciplinary institute can be a key reason why new faculty wish to join, or remain, at a university thereby further increasing the university’s interdisciplinary research capacity. A strong interdisciplinary ethos within a university, delivered on the ground by institutes, can be a competitive advantage in the search for academic talent, creating a virtuous circle.

8: Institutes provide seed funding for interdisciplinary research

Seed funds are perceived by faculty to be one of the most important actions and incentives that an institute can take to enable interdisciplinary research. Internal funding programmes within institutes are generally viewed very positively, although caution is needed to ensure that these funding programmes produce high quality interdisciplinary work, and that faculty do not “game” the incentives to produce superficial interdisciplinary interactions.


This blog post is based on a research study I conducted interviewing 30 leaders and faculty within four sustainability research institutes in the United States of America. The study underscores how research institutes occupy an ideal organisational position within a university to be vehicles for progressing an interdisciplinary research agenda. It is however clear that the organisation of interdisciplinary research within institutes cannot be left to chance; institutes need to have a clear strategy and actions for how to deliver on their interdisciplinary goals.

What is your experience of interdisciplinary work within research institutes? Are they important enablers for this work, or have you found that institutes fail to “walk the talk” when it comes to interdisciplinarity?

To find out more:
Bolger, P. (2021), Delivering on the promise: How are sustainability research institutes enabling interdisciplinary research? International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 22, 8: 167-189. (Online – open access) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSHE-10-2020-0415

Biancani, S., McFarland, D. A. and Dahlander, L. (2014). The semi-formal organization. Organanisational Science. 25, 5:1306–1324.

Biography: Paul Bolger PhD is Manager of the Environmental Research Institute at University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland. He has worked across academia, industry and government for over 25 years developing long term research solutions for global sustainability challenges. His research focuses on climate change and the circular economy, and he teaches a module on Leadership for Sustainability at UCC. He is a US-Ireland Fulbright Scholar.

6 thoughts on “Eight ways research institutes enable interdisciplinary research”

  1. Hi Tarek,

    Thanks very much for your reply and your thoughts on institutionalising IDR. It is good to learn about the integrated research units within your university and efforts to increase capacity for IDR.

    I fully agree that embedding interdisciplinary research is no easy task. As you say we have in place in many universities the existing structures for IDR but have not effectively enabled them within our universities. My starting point for this work was that most universities have created research centres and institutes over the past number of decades and invested significant resources in the same.

    Whilst these centres/institutes tend to have interdisciplinarity (and transdisciplinarity) as central goals, it is not clear how this is achieved in day-to-day practice. In particular we have not developed effective governance and academic structures to retain the benefits of disciplinary depth of disciplines and schools, whilst also enabling interdisciplinary units to work on shared research questions and challenges. This remains a key challenge for university administration.

    Thanks again.


    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks a lot for your insightful reply, you have touched on all of my areas of concerns: real interdisciplinary daily practice and governance that guide this practice toward real impact. Many thinks if they are doing research to solve complex problem, they are by default practicing IDR in the right way, despite there is no knowledge integration (the heart of IDR) in the research design and execution. I think that “effective inter- and trans- disciplinary organizational leadership” is most important factor for the success of inter- and trans- disciplinary vision

      Actually I am going to attend a webinar under the same title soon to learn the best practice and attributes of leadership, regardless if I am able to apply it or not because some leaders can’t change

      Best wishes for all ID community to change the world to better place


      • Hi Tarek,

        As the name of this platform and blog forum suggests. it is “knowledge integration” that is at the heart of successful IDR and TDR i.e. will the integrated whole be greater than the sum of the parts? This is the crucial question that ID researchers might ask themselves before embarking on their interdisciplinary research project.

        Hope that you enjoy the upcoming webinar.


    • Dear Paul

      Good to read this summary of your research. One of my regrets of the last 18 months was not being able to make my planned visit to University College Cork so that we could discuss in person!

      Prompted by this discussion with Tarek, I would also add that one of the major challenges still faced by university leadership is the impact that interdisciplinary research institutes can have on the careers of more junior researchers.

      There is evidence (e.g. quantitative in Sabharwal & Hu, 2013 and in qualitative interviews I conducted for my own book on ID careers) that such institutional structures can hold back the academic advancement of research staff who are often employed on fixed-term, grant-funded contracts (certainly in the UK context).

      This adds to the general precarity of early career researchers and can lead to a “perpetual postdoc” situation where their interdisciplinary expertise can actually be a disadvantage when trying to achieve a permanent university post.

      It would be interesting to hear if this accords with other international experiences but UK universities have not yet solved the problem of reconciling discipline-focused administrative structures (schools and departments) with cross-cutting interdisciplinary institutes (centres) in the context of smooth career development. We have tried to address this through some of the interdisciplinary career development advice included in the SHAPE-ID Toolkit http://www.shapeidtoolkit.eu

      Best wishes

      • Dear Catherine,

        Thanks very much for your reply.

        You make a very valid and important observation on the impact that interdisciplinary research institutes, and interdisciplinarity more generally, can have on the careers of more junior researchers. It has got me thinking about the less positive impacts of research institutes!

        The institutes that I examined were ones where the primary affiliation of academics and researchers was still within the school or discipline – this is the disciplinary piece; the researcher/academic then had a “secondary” affiliation to the institute – this is the interdisciplinary space. So in theory this can be the best of both worlds; those researchers interested in interdisciplinary work can do so through the institute but remained aligned with school goals and strategy, and thereby to promotion and tenure.

        A situation where researchers are directly affiliated to an interdisciplinary centre or institute within a university (with no connection to a school) is likely to be disastrous for their opportunities for promotion and long term tenure. This is a very serious issue and I would caution any researcher to think long and hard about spending extended periods of time in such a centre if they wish to become permanent academic staff. You rightly point out that these researchers are invisible within the university, and are destined to spend decades on short term post-doctoral contracts. Part of the issue here (certainly in Ireland) is that universities have only one way of awarding permanent status i.e. by becoming a lecturer within a school. If there was a framework for permanent research posts up to, and including, professorship with the recognition of interdisciplinary scholarship, then this would go a long way to helping.

        We would hope to make good on that invite to University College Cork in the near future. We would very much like to have you talk about your book; it is long overdue.

        Best wishes,


  2. I asked myself many times, what is the catalyst to speed up IDR (interdisciplinary research) in order to solve wicked problems in our community, should it be governmental policies or finding the values and promoting incentives for researchers; why should leaders of institutes be interested in inter/trans-disciplinary research.

    Institutionalizing IRD in a university is a very hard task, the majority of researchers like to be isolated in their own faculty and collaborate with colleagues from another department. I think that the smart way to foster this type of research in a low income countries is to utilize the existing structure, resources and facilities and try to direct them toward effective IDR without asking for new infrastructure and human resources. You may need to recruit few but not starting from scratch, especially at the beginning when you try to convince university leaders and owners.

    University needs to look at the small pieces of puzzle and think how they can fit into bigger picture related to sustainability in order to build effective strategic plans and goals for IDR collaboration among faculties.

    In my university, we established integrated research units for disciplinary research in each faculty and central laboratory in faculty of postgraduates for interdisciplinary collaboration, all working under the strategic goals of governmental vision and under sustainability themes. It will take times to have an impactful outcomes but we hope first to overcome the resistance to change and disciplinary isolation.

    Thanks a lot Paul for these wonderful suggestions and for your useful article


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: