Education

Interdisciplinary research is key to scientific discovery. So why are universities reluctant to cross disciplines?

Interdisciplinary science can help solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Interdisciplinary science can help solve the world’s most pressing problems. Image: Unsplash.

Phil Baty
Chief Global Affairs Officer, Times Higher Education
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Education

  • Scientific research that crosses traditional academic disciplines will be essential for the next generation of big breakthroughs.
  • New research by Times Higher Education has found universities are significantly lacking when it comes to supporting interdisciplinary science.
  • We outline the key barriers to interdisciplinary science and explore what can be done to encourage and embrace its potential.

Scientific research that crosses traditional academic disciplines and breaks down subject silos is widely understood to be essential for the next generation of big breakthroughs and the key to solving the world’s most pressing problems.

The world’s biggest challenges are, of course, highly complex. Addressing the climate crisis, for example, will require combined expertise in science, engineering, psychology, sociology and much more.

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And in academia, some of the most exciting discoveries are coming through crossing disciplines: bioinformatics, which emerged from the intersection of biology and computer science, is harnessing vast pools of data to open up new avenues in personalised healthcare; astrobiology emerged from a combination of disciplines including astronomy, chemistry and geology to help us understand the potential of life beyond Earth.

But new research from Times Higher Education (THE) has found universities are significantly lacking when it comes to supporting interdisciplinary science.

Why are universities so hesitant to break down their subject silos?

The barriers are clear and high: universities are, by and large, structured in neat disciplinary silos, with departments (and their precious budgets) typically separated from each other, even with their own separate campus buildings; subject fields often come with their own research practices, languages and philosophies that are hard to penetrate by outsiders; and the academic journals, prizes and grants that bestow such prestige on scholars and drive their careers remain stubbornly locked into narrow disciplinary silos.

At the World Academic Summit in Sydney in September, some university leaders even reflected upon the internal politics, petty jealousies and “bad feeling” that can stand in the way of cross departmental collaborations.

So, it was little surprise that despite much rhetoric around the transformative power of interdisciplinary science, THE’s research found too many universities paying “lip service” to the notion.

THE's research project was carried out in partnership with Schmidt Science Fellows, an initiative of Eric and Wendy’s Schmidt’s philanthropic foundation, Schmidt Futures, that supports early career researchers to cross disciplines. More than 700 universities across 100 countries submitted qualitative data to THE on several measures relating to interdisciplinarity, and the vast majority of those institutions said they provide specific physical facilities (92%) and specific administrative support (86%) for interdisciplinary teams.

However, lower shares of institutions said they have measures of interdisciplinary success (70%) or a tenure or promotion system in place that recognises interdisciplinary research (62%).

On average, across all responding institutions, there were 0.07 job adverts for interdisciplinary science researchers per academic staff member in the 2021 academic year.

The project also analysed research publication output data to assess the quantity and quality of interdisciplinary publications across the world. The figures show that the world’s traditional research powerhouses – such as the US, UK and Australia – are much less focused on interdisciplinary research than the leading systems in Asia.

Overall, China leads the world in the volume and proportion of interdisciplinary research. China published over 1 million cross-disciplinary science papers between 2018 and 2022 – representing 33% of its total scientific research output. The US is second in volume of interdisciplinary research, with almost 800,000 cross-disciplinary publications, accounting for less than 22% of its scientific output.

Rick Szostak, author of the book Integrating the Human Sciences, told THE that the world’s top-ranked universities “may give lip service to interdisciplinarity but still prioritise publications in disciplinary journals”, while university administrators do not necessarily have “a very good idea about how best to support this” work.

How can we encourage and embrace the potential of interdisciplinary science?

Well, how about a new global university ranking? European Commission director Gerard de Graaf (of DG Connect) once said that “rankings do more to direct universities’ attention, policy-makers’ attention, students’ attention than any other policy tool”, helping to “change behaviour” and to “nudge organizations to do better”.

So THE, home of the famous World University Rankings and Impact Rankings, is now working with Schmidt Science Fellows to develop a new global Interdisciplinary Science Ranking.

It is hoped that a new ranking of universities that recognized excellence in interdisciplinary science will not only highlight and share best practice worldwide, but it will influence career development in interdisciplinarity and incentivise structural change in the university sector to promote its wider practice.

The ranking, due out next year, will have three “pillars” of performance metrics: inputs, examining funding and recruitment for interdisciplinary science; processes, looking at institutional activities such as administrative support and career development for interdisciplinary activity; and outputs, assessing the quantity and quality of research publications that cross the disciplines.

The preliminary data work has already uncovered some star performers. From the US, an extremely high performer in terms of outputs is the California Institute of Technology, a highly focussed institution which has put interdisciplinarity at its very heart and which is so small that academics cannot fail to interact across their disciplinary boundaries, even in the queue for morning coffee. Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign also offer stellar examples of best practice in the research output metrics.

Overall universities in Hong Kong and Singapore have the strongest performances in Asia, including The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. In Africa, Cairo University in Egypt and the University of the Witwatersrand perform very well in the output metrics.

As its Schmidt Science Fellows executive director Megan Kenna, says: “The commitment to a 2024 Interdisciplinary Science Ranking is an important milestone in convening a sector-wide dialogue with institutions to surface and showcase best practices in fostering academic ecosystems where interdisciplinary science can thrive.”

“Interdisciplinary science can allow us to think differently, tackle challenges from multiple perspectives, and accelerate discovery.

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