Report on interdisciplinary research

Profiles of Norwegian science

Norwegian reearch

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Teamwork in science.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Interdisciplinary: the elusive word in science. So many want to do it, so many try to do it, and so many are never quite certain if they actually achieve it.

The Research Council of Norway states that it “seeks to encourage and promote interdisciplinary research.” How could this be done? What does success look like?

To examine these questions, they commissioned a report from Technopolis Group, which was published in May. The analysis details helpful approaches for interdisciplinary research in Norway, what seems to work, and how to improve.

Five case studies around Norway, from Tromsø to Ås, show how interdisciplinary research is (and could be) done within the country. Technopolis compares this Norwegian experience with their previous examination of interdisciplinary science in university-level institutions across England.

Unsurprisingly, multiple prongs of action foster collaboration among people from different backgrounds. Having offices next to each other and creating research centers are conversation starters, as are regular seminars and events to exchange ideas. Virtual networks are important, too, to expand horizons beyond immediate colleagues.

Institutional support is essential. Top-down directives, encouragement, and guidance produce an environment where connecting across topic boundaries becomes expected and rewarded. Leadership means setting strategies and priorities, funneling researchers into interdisciplinary modes of thinking and doing.

Leaders cannot provide everything. Control also comes up from below. Individual researchers must take initiatives to develop and complete projects and publications melding a variety of theories, methods, and interpretations.

In highlighting the combination of top-down and bottom-up, the report brings early career researchers into the foray. Students need to be given the space to learn and pursue interdisciplinary approaches. Training programs at the postgraduate level cultivate and advance skills for an interdisciplinary world.

Here, the report could have more forcefully expressed concerns raised by interdisciplinary early career researchers about their marketability and career prospects. How does an interdisciplinary background play out in a competitive job market with universities still frequently organized in discipline-specific departments that teach discipline-specific degrees? How do newer, interdisciplinary journals rank compared to the older disciplinary ones? What happens when a panel of disciplinarians reads a Ph.D. that cannot be pigeonholed?

These worries are raised as “barriers” rather than as potential career stoppers. The barriers do not have to destroy research prospects and many less-established scientists skillfully navigate the treacherous waters. It is unclear what proportion fail or how many simply give up when senior, discipline-focused scientists discourage or belittle them.

The report notes that a flourishing interdisciplinary environment “is demanding, requiring the investment of time and effort.” Post-Ph.D. researchers are typically on short-term contracts and must churn out scientific publications to avoid unemployment.
The extra needed for interdisciplinary work can drain incentive from those trying to establish themselves. Complete understanding and extra resources from a current institutional director might not translate into a job interview elsewhere. Conversely, teamwork can yield more publications, bolstering a CV.

The report bears solid advice about how to “maintain a variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary identities.” No researcher is ever confined to a single approach. It is much easier, though, to present multiple visions when you are established or have a secure job.

One keyword from the discussion is “culture.” Accepting interdisciplinarity without denigrating, or losing the advantages of, disciplines is cultural. Too often, climate change work disdains disaster research or theoretical physicists dislike experimental physicists. A cultural change is required for anthropologists and sociologists to accept that different fieldwork lengths have validity and for physical volcanologists to recognize the power of linking seismic and chemical studies.

Ultimately, interdisciplinary research need not evade us or damage a researcher’s reputation, but we do need to admit that it happens. The confusing labyrinth of vocabulary—the report discusses multidisciplinarity, pluridisciplinarity, crossdisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity—is also unnecessary.

Why not keep it simple? Interdisciplinarity (an eight-syllable mouthful), broadly, is simply science with “all disciplines” or “any disciplines.” Even better, pick and choose techniques and ideas for solving problems via “no-discipline science.”

In the end, it’s just about working together to respect, learn from, and teach each other.

This article originally appeared in the July 13, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.