Crossing Paths – A British Academy Report on Interdisciplinarity in UK Universities
by Professor Tom McLeish, FRS
17 Aug 2016
“Notwithstanding the accelerated fragments of specialised academic activities, we trample in each other’s territory, sing each other’s songs, whether we want to or not”, wrote Nicholas Lash in his 1996 essay Contemplation, metaphor and real knowledge. Yet the need to find those shared songs is as urgent now as it was then.
What should we do about interdisciplinarity? July marked the publication and launch of Crossing Paths, a remarkable report by the Academy, as its response. A detailed view on the value, function and status of interdisciplinary research in the UK from the perspective of the humanities and social sciences, constitutes a vital contribution to a conversation which is active both nationally and internationally. There is a palpable interdisciplinary Zeitgeist – the Academy of Medical Sciences published a report last year (it’s called ‘Team Science’ in that disciplinary neighbourhood), and the Higher Education Funding Council for England is currently running a major project in interdisciplinary research (IDR) as part of the preparations for the next Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise. I was the beneficiary of the characteristically enlightened attitude within the British Academy that the Royal Society, and so a voice from the sciences, might helpfully inform the working group. In the event I felt the benefit flowed principally in the other direction: the experience informed me greatly – and was also a delight and a fascinating learning experience.
An open consultation exercise initiated and informed our work – providing experience and opinion from early-career academics to experienced scholars, university leaders to policy makers and beneficiaries of university research. Reading every word of the 13MB of documents was one of the tasks of the tireless and efficient British Academy project officers Thomas Kohut and Jonathan Matthews, but for all of us on the working group this distillation of experience and reflection provided a rich resource of material that fuelled the entire project. We quickly noticed that it also contained, at the highest level of abstraction, a strong contradiction. If asked whether IDR was broadly benficial and ought to be encouraged, a strong majority of correspondents responded positively. However, if asked whether they would advise an early career academic to engage in it they were predominantly negative. It’s wonderful - but don’t touch it! So we set ourselves the task to imagine an academy in which the answer to both questions would be positive, and to consider what pathways might lead from here to there.
Working group discussions complemented site visits to universities that had set up centres, institutes and other structures that supported engagement across disciplinary boundaries, and interviews with groups of funders, researchers with strong interdisicplianry experience, and academic leaders. Slowly, a pattern of possibilities began to emerge, and with it the structure of a report. We realised that we would need to examine interdisciplinary education and pedagogy as well as research, deconstruct the pressures on academic careers at each stage, and crucially rework the processes of evaluation and peer-review when IDR is the focus.
The vision of Crossing Paths is an exciting one. We did not find that the tensions between disciplinary and interdisciplinary work necessarily amount to a zero-sum game. While affirming that a strong disciplinary foundation is essential for any academic researcher or institution, we were also presented with examples of a healthy interdisciplinarity that supports, enriches and transforms disciplines and that leads into the central questions of learning rather than simply decorating boundaries or constructing epistemological bridges. We found that, as well as creating an essential response to the urgent ‘top down’ global questions of our time, and supporting external public benefit to research, interdisciplinary thinking also emerges ‘bottom up’ from the best curiosity-driven encounters on our campuses. But to release this potential we do need to change. Strong signals in support of IDR from evaluatory bodies, within academic promotion criteria and in our patterns of publication will be essential, but are not difficult to achieve. Peer-review at its multiple levels needs to adopts methodologies to assess the integrative whole of IDR rather than attempt to dissect its disciplinary constitutents. Universities need to adopt best-practice, and create imaginative new structures, that support both students and scholars who cross paths – and even walk together for a mile or two to trample some new territory together.
Professor Tom McLeish, FRS is Professor of Physics at Durham University and a member of the British Academy's interdisciplinarity working group. For more information about this project, see: www.britishacademy.ac.uk/interdisciplinarity.