Wherever I turn currently I seem to come up against the questions that assessing interdisciplinary research throws up. Nature recently had a special issue highlighting some of the challenges and rewards, but taking a very broad brush approach. Its editorial headed ‘Why interdisciplinary research matters’ rather implied the discerning reader might never have considered its importance, which I very much doubt. Collectively researchers are in no doubt of the significance of interdisciplinary projects, whether or not they personally choose to pursue that line.
I am interested in encouraging specific actions that may make the playing field more level between monodisciplinary projects and those which reach out beyond traditional boundaries. I will take it as read that a large number of topics (say, sustainability, energy solutions….) require multiple disciplines to be involved. I am surprised by those – including funders – who behave as if it was still necessary to encourage people to dare to dip a toe into the waters of inter-/multi-/pan-disciplinary research (I am not going to worry about these linguistic distinctions here). Of course that doesn’t mean that every project needs or could be like this; many topics fit neatly within standard labels and as such will be well suited to traditional decision-making panels. I am interested in the fate of projects which can’t so easily be pigeon-holed and what systemic changes might facilitate their success. I think there are a variety of distinct issues involved which often get conflated.
Some schemes require sole PIs: the ERC standard grants are like this. The ERC’s own data shows that proposals which tick more than one panel’s remit do not fare as well as those that don’t, a focus of concern. Different approaches have been tried out over the years to overcome this problem; further discussions about new possibilities are underway. So much for thinking that a single research council will cause fewer problems for such proposals, as I once naively did. (As an important aside I hope the Nurse Review will explore how the UK can do more to stop proposals falling down the cracks between research councils that does indubitably currently occur.)
However, for other than large conglomerate proposals (as tend to arise in specific calls as opposed to responsive mode) there will usually be at most 2-3 PIs and what follows applies equally to these proposals as to single PI-type grants. Let me take a specific topic to illustrate the challenges, that of driverless cars. One can imagine a project which requires some engineering (be it algorithms or something to do with manufacturing) as well as some social science such as what the public might be willing to accept. Logically one can see what outline shape such a project might have. One or other aspect might be regarded as cutting edge, or the novelty might lie in the synergy and not in either facet independently. How many times have you heard a panel member say ‘Topic A is really mundane, topic B ditto and yet the whole is highly innovative and amounts to frontier research’? Unfortunately that really isn’t how ‘experts’ tend to behave and yet that may absolutely be the right answer. I fear they are more likely to say ‘Topic A is mundane and I haven’t a clue about B so I’ll give this a low score’. The other only-too-common complaint from referees and panels, particularly where there is a single PI, is that the project is too ambitious because it transcends boundaries. This comment is likely to be heard even if it is clearly stated who the PI(s) will work with to cover some of the more remote bases.
It has been suggested (I have heard this in the context of UK Research Councils) that what one really needs is a panel (and referees) solely consisting of people with a proven track record themselves in performing interdisciplinary research to judge such proposals – although I don’t think any of them have gone down that particular route (charities may have). I have a lot of sympathy with this view because I think such people would be less prone to say that one particular facet of the proposal is pedestrian and therefore the project overall is flawed. This sort of refereeing comment seems to happen with disappointing regularity. In my own field of biological physics it is a well-worn complaint of applicants which as yet the research councils have failed to address or, I believe, even attempted to address in any meaningful way.
Another argument I have heard time and time again, from various different funders, is that a home will always be found for any proposal and that applicants should simply write the best grant they can. I’m sorry, this response strikes me as completely inadequate (I have been reminded of it just recently in a context that is outwith the research council system). A ‘home’ means simply that the funder is prepared to put the application in front of a panel, not that the panel is well configured to deal with it on equal terms with a monodisciplinary application. Having someone judge a proposal is simply not the same thing as having someone judge a proposal competently or fairly.
So, as I head off to yet another group who will be discussing this problem, having spent an evening last week over a glass of wine arguing the same point with a yet another funding agency, it seems to me the problem persists in the face of the oft-stated desire by scientists, funders and politicians (in the context of societal benefit) alike to encourage such cross-cutting research. It seems to me that the problem should be broken down into several stages, none of which are tantamount to needing to encourage more people to get out of their silos. I think there are plenty already out there wanting to do just this, although (given the challenges) early career researchers may well feel nervous about making the attempt. Anyone trying the interdisciplinary venture may simply become frustrated by the funding landscape and end up trying to modify their proposal deliberately to obscure its inherent multidisciplinarity.
Here is a list of the challenges I can readily identify at different stages of the process. Others may want to add in more:
- Referees do not explicitly identify the parts of the proposal they don’t feel competent to judge. They may make sweeping judgements based on only partial understanding.
- Likewise they may fail to recognize that novelty sits in bringing two quite standard approaches together to create something new.
- Panels can find it hard to reject or nuance such flawed referees’ reports.
- Panels can be very conservative and risk averse, preferring ‘safe’ but possibly incremental research which has received enthusiastic referees’ comments; where one project fits centrally into a remit and another is peripheral, such conservatism (I tend to think of it as ‘regression towards the mean’) is liable to favour the former over the latter.
- Attempts to bring in external panel members from a different panel in some ad hoc way (I know BBSRC used to do this and may still) their views tend to be downplayed: I have seen internal evidence to support this statement.
- In some cases proposals may be passed between funders, or (where two or more funders co-fund) one party may have right of veto despite only appreciating a portion of a proposal.
The Nature Special I refer to at the start of this post remarked in passing that industry does not have a similar problem. Nor, from my previous experience, do research institutes when using their own internal funds. When, over a decade ago, I was involved with the governance of the Institute for Food Research in Norwich, it was very clear how, being driven by projects with an over-arching aim, where nutritional and textural aspects might mingle or the impact of genetic modification of a crop on downstream processing, they could bring teams together in a fluid way and all that mattered was the outcome. Maybe the textural characterisation was entirely pedestrian but if in an attempt to achieve better nutrition (e.g. a lower fat content in a food) concomitant with acceptable mouthfeel such characterisation was necessary, then so be it.
We collectively need to find ways of moving to a problem and not discipline-based judgement so that all researchers have the same opportunities to get beyond traditional (sub-)disciplines and solve the problems that need solving and not the ones that fit some old-fashioned idea of what physics, or engineering, or biology look like.