Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Beyond the Safety of the Silo

Earlier this year Nesta and the Technology Strategy Board, now known as Innovate UK, launched the £10-million Longitude Prize. The competition to choose the subject for the prize offered the public a feast of intractable problems, from which it had to select a winner. It was a fairly ghoulish spectacle, akin to an X Factor-style contest to choose the most dangerous Horseman of the Apocalypse. “But how important is dementia, really?” we were asked. “Is it worse than hunger? Or thirst? What about paralysis? Or Pestilence?”

“Pestilence” roared the audience, and the returning officer duly offered up antimicrobial resistance as the Horseman Most in Need of a Good Kicking, or a Christmas Number One, which might be the same thing.

Finding an answer to this particular problem will not be easy. It will require a number of disciplines to work together. And that is always tricky.

Interdisciplinary research is beloved of funders and the public. It’s sexy. It’s fun. It’s quirky. And who knows? It might actually come up with a revelatory answer. The research councils certainly think so: they have channelled a substantial part of their budget towards dealing with their own horsemen, including global food security, global uncertainties, energy and environmental change.

Unfortunately the framework within which academic research operates mitigates against interdisciplinarity. From the age of 16 students are encouraged to specialise; from a broad range of GCSEs to a handful of A-levels, from a handful of A-levels to a single degree, from a single degree to a small, esoteric doctorate in an outer spiral arm of their disciplinary galaxy.

Drawing academics away from this level of specialisation to see the bigger picture and to work with people outside their discipline is difficult, but not impossible. Indeed, it’s the basis on which the University of Kent was founded. In a flamboyant flourish of hope and 1960s idealism it did away with departments, establishing instead colleges in which astrophysicists would be housed with poets, mathematicians with historians.

It was, apparently, quite tough going initially, particularly in applying this interdisciplinary approach to teaching students. The specialisation of A-levels meant that students found it difficult to step beyond their three subjects. The ethos was undermined in the 1990s when the Universities Funding Council, the short-lived precursor to HEFCE, sought to calculate the cost of teaching individual subjects. In order to do this, academics had to declare their disciplinary affiliation. Thus pigeonholed, grouping and departmentalisation become more likely, and the creation of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) made it inevitable.

The RAE (and subsequent REF) calcified research into Units of Assessment. Academics were forced to compare themselves with others in their pigeonhole, and the outputs they offered up for assessment were inevitably those published in highly-ranked, single discipline journals.

 Despite this, some have continued to rebel against the silos. Andrew Prescott, professor of digital humanities at King’s College London, has done much to champion the benefits of interdisciplinary research between the humanities and digital sciences, and the formidable James Steele, professor of archaeology at University College London, makes a convincing case for the necessity of working across arbitrary disciplinary divides.

 However, these are the exceptions that prove that a rule exists. For most, as Pfirman and Martin (2009) note, “Interdisciplinary scholars by definition do not ‘fit’ within institutional structures...They face difficulties at every step along the way: negotiating interdepartmental resources and workload expectations when first hired, being productive in traditional venues, achieving recognition for their accomplishments, coteaching, and administering grants.”

Meanwhile the funders continue to push their whizzy, sexy calls. I once developed a ‘Research Council Priority Generator’ for welding together random words to create an interdisciplinary priority which was not very far from the real thing: ‘Curation beyond Uncertainty’, and ‘Syntax towards Wellbeing’ stick in my mind.

But these calls are not the answer. They create a scepticism amongst academics and a freneticism among administrators. Worse still, the reviewers and the panellists may not know what to make of the applications they receive. Many only feel comfortable assessing the research that falls within their specialism, and are more likely to favour such work.

There needs to be a longer term, quieter cultural shift to accept interdisciplinarity in the mainstream academy. Both funders and institutions need to change engrained habits for this to happen: funders need to drop the eclectic calls, and institutions need to offer some flexibility and recognition for interdisciplinary researchers.

This is easier said than done, of course, especially when these silos are so familiar, so comfortable, so safe. However, it’s a shift worth making. It is only by reducing the rhetoric and making interdisciplinarity a plausible alternative that it will become mainstream; and it is only by becoming mainstream that it can give those horsemen the kicking they so richly deserve.

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 9 September 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com

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