Grant giving: Global funders to focus on interdisciplinarity

By Professor Rick Rylance, Chief Executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Chair of Research Councils UK.

Three arguments are often made in favour of interdisciplinary research. First, complex modern problems such as climate change and resource security are not amenable to single-discipline investigation; they often require many types of expertise across the biological, physical and social disciplines. Second, discoveries are said to be more likely on the boundaries between fields, where the latest techniques, perspectives and insights can reorient or increase knowledge. The influence of big-data science on many disciplines is a good example. Third, these encounters with others benefit single disciplines, extending their horizons.

The arguments against interdisciplinary work are also familiar. Devotees of normalized citation measures often contend that interdisciplinary research is inferior. Some fear that it drains funds, time and energy from ‘core’ disciplines. Research funders often hear complaints that schemes targeted at interdisciplinarity distract researchers. There is a persistent argument that ‘you can’t have inter-disciplines without disciplines’.

One striking aspect of this debate is how poor the consolidated data are on which to base judgements. This is why the Global Research Council (GRC) has selected interdisciplinarity as one of its two annual themes for an in-depth report, debate and statement between now and mid-2016. (The other is the position of women in science and research.) The GRC is a federation of more than 50 national research funders, with representatives from countries including Brazil, China, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Participants include the US National Science Foundation, Research Councils UK (RCUK), Science Europe and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

This blog post is extracted, with permission, from an article on nature.com