Barriers to transdisciplinary research

Researchers are human too, though possibly more curious than many. So why do many recognise that interdisciplinary research is valuable, but don’t want to do it? What are the barriers to doing this work?

Barrier type 1: attitude to the subject

It’s not “pure”, it’s second rate, it’s shallow or derivative.

It’s too risky for a career (as funding is harder to get), though interdisciplinary research is influential.

It takes work to learn to speak the language of another discipline.

It takes humility to admit that one’s home discipline might have limitations or flaws, and that another discipline might have a better approach in a given area.

Training in a single subject area takes a long time – how much longer (and how much more money) for two?

A woman student sitting on the floor in front of library shelves, reading from two open books.
Only so much time in a life. How should students spend their time to acquire knowledge: go for breadth or go for depth?

The money question is only getting more important as time goes on. Rising tuition fees, rising cost of living… Fewer people will be able to afford to complete degrees in more than one discipline. In this context it’s natural that universities should be developing interdisciplinary training like the IMSE MRes. My own shift from chemistry into archaeology was enabled by about 5 years of independent reading and buying I don’t know how many books on my own. I was working at the time and could afford it, but it’s still a time barrier.

Barrier type 2: building relationships across difference is hard

Evaluating research that’s unfamiliar is difficult, so it’s hard to build trust with researchers who do unfamiliar work.

People who can lead cross-functional teams well are rare.

It’s hard to catalyse the casual conversations that need to happen to build relationships.

I remember running into this in my own research career. I presented at many, many conferences and I lost count of the number of times I just didn’t really get much feedback, because my research focus on textiles in archaeological science was either too textile-y or too scientific for the audience. It was depressing.

Barrier type 3: structural blocks

Universities allocate people into buildings, usually by grouping people who do similar things as they’ll need the same kind of building. This keeps disciplines siloed. If you have to go to another floor/building/campus to meet someone who thinks differently, this takes more energy than bumping into someone in the coffee room at the end of the corridor who thinks similarly. Co-location is key. It’s amazing how basic this is.

A rooftop level view southwest across Imperial College London's South Kensington campus, showing Queen's Tower and the buildings around Dangoor Plaza.
Imperial College London’s South Kensington campus, showing a range of buildings built between 1887 and the present. These house a variety of departments including parts of Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Design Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering, etc…

Some universities give more credit and funding to work that fits neatly within departments than to work that inconveniently crosses administrative barriers.

Interdisciplinary projects are less likely to attract funding from national funding agencies. No funding, no career.

The system is changing but this is a slow process

Universities are setting up interdisciplinary institutes which formally recognise this kind of work. IMSE is an example of this!

Funding agencies can set up pots of money specifically for interdisciplinary work, and get it assessed properly. An example is UKRI’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

Universities can offer multidisciplinary training courses at undergraduate or postgraduate level. IMSE’s MRes is an example.

Your experience

Do you recognise any of these barriers from your own education or work? This doesn’t only happen in universities…. Many commercial companies are organised in departments of people who do the same sort of thing. And although building cross-functional capabilities is recognised as an essential way to create innovation… most of these teams are dysfunctional. Difference is hard for humans ☹

Read more on interdisciplinarity: Is building solar panels a chemistry problem, an engineering problem or a business problem?

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