By Paul Bolger
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.