Facilitating serendipity for interdisciplinary research

By Catherine Lyall

author-catherine-lyall
Catherine Lyall (biography)

How can institutions facilitate the serendipitous encounters that so often appear to characterise interdisciplinary careers? Is there an inherent hypocrisy in university leaders, research funders and policymakers claiming that they want to facilitate interdisciplinarity and then not creating the conditions that experienced interdisciplinarians say they need in order to foster this style of working?

Here I examine the importance of informal interactions, physical locations, the ‘small stuff’ and ‘slow research.’ I draw on interviews with British academics (at various career stages from postdoc to professor) whose doctoral studies had been funded by deliberately interdisciplinary studentship schemes. For more detail, including the sources of the quotations, see Lyall (2019).

Informality is crucial

Finding the time and space for informal discussions with colleagues is critical. What seems to be important is frequent, sustained dialogue (“bumping into people from different disciplines, while you’re having your coffee”) rather than one off events (“a workshop here, a sandpit there”). Senior academics of all complexions inevitably reflect back on the halcyon days of their time as postdocs, ruing the loss of that institutional culture that promoted “freedom,” “proximity to other people” and “the ability just to have a chit chat over coffee, come up with interesting ideas, perspectives that nobody had ever thought of before.”

A place to grow?

Communal spaces and informal meeting points (those “conversations in the corridor”) are important. Yet, when space is at a premium, it is these social spaces that are often turned into offices or teaching spaces. Less than a generation ago, universities would have an active university staff club where colleagues would eat together regardless of discipline, resulting in a lot of “accidental relationships” (Aldrich 2014: 55). None of the UK based universities that I visited seemed to maintain this staff club tradition, perhaps as a consequence of growth or, more likely, changing work cultures and increasing time pressures.

The disadvantages of universities being situated across multiple campuses, offices remote from the main campus or departments split across two buildings should not be underestimated:

[I]t’s about a ten minute walk but boy does that make a difference … it’s not the same thing as popping next door or meeting someone at coffee and being able to discuss your ideas.

Facilitating the small stuff

The ‘small stuff’ is about personal networks that:

  • are enduring (“You can look up experts in your department but it’s nowhere near the same as knowing that that was the person I sat next to when I did my PhD”)
  • arise through unexpected routes (eg., meetings with new colleagues on a picket line)
  • require creativity and personal responsibility
  • need mutually respectful spaces where “anything goes” and “it’s fine if you don’t understand something.”

This is related to the “strength of weak ties” (Granovetter 1973):

[I]t’s not exactly obscure stuff, you know about innovation and where it comes from and trying to create lots of weak ties across different networks, trying to maintain lots of different networks. There is actually theory behind this stuff and it flies in the face of what we’re told to do, which is target the topics everyone else is working on, target the big funding schemes that everyone else is targeting, target the top 10 journals that everyone else is targeting.

These weak ties are characterised as “indispensable to individuals’ opportunities and to their integration into communities” (Granovetter 1973: 1378) in contrast to strong ties, which encourage local cohesion but ultimately lead to fragmentation. In other words, strong ties are likely to foster cliques (as one might define a discipline), whereas weak ties are more likely to connect members to a breadth of different groups.

Interdisciplinary research as slow research

It is generally recognised that interdisciplinary research usually takes longer to produce results because, inter alia, of the extra time needed to access new literature, learn new concepts and perhaps build and foster dialogue within a new research team. Leahey et al. (2017) have shown numerically that this slowness contributes to a “productivity penalty” where interdisciplinary scholars gain greater prominence through citations but are less productive than their monodisciplinary peers with their publication output.

In their blog post on how transformative knowledge is co-produced, Stirling and colleagues urge us to resist the pressures of modern academia and describe interdisciplinary (or, in their case, transdisciplinary) encounters with research partners as a form of “slow knowledge” where these projects are not just “one-off” but reflect relationships sustained over time.

The Slow Science Manifesto (Slow Science Academy 2010) calls for time to ”misunderstand each other, especially when fostering lost dialogue between humanities and natural sciences” and points out that science needs “time to fail.” If contemporary academic life is indeed typified by “distractedness and fragmentation” (Berg and Seeber 2016: 90) what does this mean for interdisciplinary integration, which by Orr’s definition, is the very opposite of fast knowledge:

Fast knowledge is mostly linear; slow knowledge is complex and ecological (Orr 2002: 40).

Concluding questions

As an interdisciplinary community, can we create opportunities to step back and think through issues and processes related to the generation of high-quality interdisciplinary research? If interdisciplinarity is characterised by “slowness,” what implications could that have for career choice given different institutional environments (interdisciplinary research centre versus traditional university department, for example)? How do researchers who are striving for ways to establish more meaningful interdisciplinary research engagements, (often through less structured, serendipitous encounters) avoid becoming anathema in the modern academy?

To find out more:
Lyall, C. (2019). Being an Interdisciplinary Academic: How Institutions Shape University Careers. Palgrave Pivot: Cham Switzerland. (Book information): https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9783030186586

References:
Aldrich, J. (2014). Interdisciplinarity. Oxford University Press: Oxford, United Kingdom.

Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78, 6: 1360-1380.

Leahey, E., Beckman, C. M. and Stanko, T. L. (2017). Prominent but Less Productive: The Impact of Interdisciplinarity on Scientists’ Research. Administrative Science Quarterly, 62, 1: 105-139.

Orr, D. W. (2002). Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention. Oxford University Press: Oxford, United Kingdom.

Slow Science Academy. (2010). The Slow Science Manifesto. (Online): http://slow-science.org/.

Biography: Catherine Lyall PhD is Professor of Science and Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh, UK. Her career at the University of Edinburgh has progressed from part-time Research Officer to Personal Chair via numerous research contracts within grant-funded research centres and a period as Associate Dean for Research Careers. She has brought this experience to bear in the book described in this blog post. She is a science policy researcher and evaluator of knowledge exchange and interdisciplinary research activities who has acted as a consultant to a number of public bodies including the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Scottish Funding Council, and the European Commission.

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Author - David McDonald
David McDonald (biography)

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Genevieve Creighton
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Tania Leimbach (biography)

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