This article is more than 2 years old

Are we addicted to problematising interdisciplinary research?

N8's Annette Bramley asks whether we spend so much time explaining how hard interdisciplinary research is that we forget to try.
This article is more than 2 years old

Annette Bramley is Director of the N8 Research Partnership


How do you solve a problem like interdisciplinary research? That’s the conundrum that seems to have been permanently on the research policy agenda ever since I can remember.

Interdisciplinary research – “ah, that old chestnut”, a “hard nut to crack”. Is it just me or does it seem like all the talking about multi/inter/cross/trans- disciplinary research gets in the way of just “cracking on” and doing it? That is not to deny for one moment that aspects of interdisciplinary research are more challenging than single discipline research. Yet, when we expect multidisciplinary research to be fraught with difficulties we will tend to find more problems and ignore the benefits that come with, what I would argue is, a completely intrinsic part of the research endeavour.

It’s easy to become addicted to problem-ifying interdisciplinary research and musing on the problem. You can become an expert on the reasons why it’s difficult, why you can’t or haven’t become involved.

“Brain Crack”

YouTube vlogger Ze Frank came up with the concept of “Brain Crack”; the hypothesis that rather than trying our ideas out and risking them not working we can get addicted to an idea and tell ourselves that we don’t have access to the time or the expertise or the resources to try them out. Ze Frank says that if you don’t execute your ideas, they stay in your brain, that you will keep fantasising about how great your idea is, and how you’re the best person to do it. However, you never do execute it because you’re addicted to feeling good thinking about it. Conveniently, not trying ideas out also means that we can cover up our own fear of failure.

We all know that academia is one of the most over-worked professions on the planet and that time is a precious and rare commodity, but academics do have access to something that is priceless – and that is academic freedom. And so what is important is to change our attitude with regard to interdisciplinary research, to stop looking at it as a problem but to look at it as an opportunity for learning and growth.

Interdisciplinary research and collaborative research both need a growth approach. That doesn’t mean we will find either collaboration or interdisciplinary research easy. They aren’t. They are by turn hard work, frustrating, exasperating, overwhelming and difficult. Like any other type of research. They are also fulfilling, rewarding, meaningful and satisfying. Even fun. Especially fun. Just like any other type of research.

Making it happen

The potential for interdisciplinary and collaborative research really is within every researcher. Every researcher can adopt an “I can do that/ learn that” growth mindset which will lead to personal and professional development in whichever research area they choose; be that interdisciplinary or single discipline, collaborative or alone.

So let’s not make a problem out of interdisciplinary research. Let’s use research in all its different forms and configurations to solve our problems and to enrich our understanding of the world. Let’s come together and learn from each other. Let’s try things out and not keep our ideas locked in gilded cages because together we can learn and grow.

Remember: “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”- (Henry Ford), and if we don’t beat our addiction to problemifying interdisciplinary research we’ll never move on to solving the real problems that are facing us.

3 responses to “Are we addicted to problematising interdisciplinary research?

  1. Arts have been advocates for an unbounded approach to interdisciplinary research by demonstrating the agency of art in multiple, creative research settings and practice.I would encourage all STEM areas to make it happen by collaborating with Arts, Media and Design for better interdisciplinary approaches. We have developed effective and transformative co-production methodologies as co-investigators with other disciplines as evidenced in REF 2014 and I suspect, will form a major part of the submissions to the REF 2021 interdisciplinary panel. Bring us in at the beginning for better impact not just the end when a nice poster or website is needed.

  2. Disciplinary boundaries are in the end just constructs. If a University one minute decides to consolidate separate Departments into a bigger unit and the next minute changes its mind and disaggregates, then the academics have moved from being non-interdisciplinary to being interdisciplinary and back again without actually changing any aspect of their work.

    It is convenient to think in terms disciplines and that’s one reason they continue to exist. Among other useful attributes, they enable students and academics to indulge their likes or dislikes and integrate different things from different disciplines to create something bespoke that is interdisciplinary. Literarally, without disciplines there is no interdisciplinarity.

    But its just convenience and constructs in the end. If over-complicated and treated too reverentially, you just end up with a headache (or a brain crack if you are Ze Frank.

  3. My experience is that it is not researchers who are reticent about interdisciplinary research. What can stop them is those who are budget holders (who may also be the academics’ managers) – they are often concerned about where the research income will end up. If research income goes to cost centre A but some of the staff and other costs involved in the research are in cost centres B and C, say, will the appropriate amount of direct and indirect costs end up in each cost centre? Of course it should be easy to make this happen but my experience is that sometimes university systems are not set up to allow it and it can be seen as ‘too much bother’ to make it work. Research centres are not always cost centres and this may compound the issue.

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