From parallel insight to true interdisciplinarity

Ellen Veie, Special Adviser at the Research Council. Source: Research Council of Norway

Ellen Veie, Special Adviser at the Research Council. Source: Research Council of Norway

The Research Council needs to give more priority to interdisciplinary research where researchers from soft and hard disciplines pose genuine challenges to each other in terms of scientific understanding and method. This was the conclusion following a review of the Research Council’s project portfolio in 2009.

In the fall of 2008 the Research Council engaged the independent Danish-based research and consulting company DAMVAD to carry out an analysis of the extent and nature of interdisciplinarity in projects receiving funding from the Research Council. Parallel to this, the Norwegian Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU STEP) examined how the various disciplines are coded throughout the application process.  Interdisciplinarity was also one of the topics addressed by the mid-term evaluation of the Large-scale Program initiative.

Parallel but not interdisciplinary

“We have a large number of projects in which disciplines that are essentially unrelated work together, but on the whole the research is carried out in parallel and cannot be described as truly interdisciplinary. There are relatively few projects that challenge each other across disciplines in terms of scientific understanding and methodology development,” says Ellen Veie, Special Adviser at the Research Council.

Why interdisciplinarity?

Interdisciplinarity is not a goal in itself, but a means of enhancing research and education in order to solve social challenges in such areas as climate change, energy, health and globalization. Nanotechnology, functional genomics, bioinformatics and neuroscience are examples of fields where groundbreaking knowledge has been developed as a result of cooperation across disciplines. The same is true of fields that address social, ethical and cultural aspects of technological development.

Interdisciplinary research is also becoming increasingly important on the international agenda. Leading research communities such as Silicon Valley in the US and Cambridge in the UK are focusing considerable efforts on measures that are designed to strengthen interdisciplinary education and research.

Less nebulous funding announcements

The Research Council administers one third of the public funding for research in Norway, and thus has a key role to play in supporting and creating a framework for interdisciplinary research. The Research Council’s Executive Board will be focusing special effort on achieving better integration of the social sciences and humanities into areas traditionally associated with natural science and technology.

“Many programs state in their calls for proposals that they are seeking interdisciplinary projects. But the wording is often nebulous and the requirements not sufficiently clear. We must be clearer in our demands for genuine cooperation between the fields,” states Veie.

Problem-solving approach

According to Veie, genuinely interdisciplinary cooperation will be easier to achieve if projects that address social challenges are angled more towards a problem-solving approach that requires expertise from seemingly disparate fields.

“For this to be successful the projects have to be of a certain dimension. We have good examples that such constellations are successful: the MILJO 2015 program (Norwegian Environmental Research Towards 2015) provides funding of about NOK 10 million each to several projects that incorporate both social science/humanities and technology/natural science. We would like to see more projects of this kind under Research Council programs,” says Veie.

Source: Research Council of Norway

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