How do we solve the problems with interdisciplinary research?


Written by Director of N8 Research Partnership, Annette Bramley 

“‘How do we solve interdisciplinary research?’ This is a question that appears to have been on the research policy agenda longer than I can remember.

But what if there isn’t a problem to solve?

The talk of multi/inter/cross/trans disciplinary research just seems to get in the way of getting on with the task at hand. That’s 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 got involved. 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. But you never execute it because you’re addicted to feeling good thinking about it. This inherently human reaction, feeling negative about a situation and picking out its faults is the root problem and the key to demystifying the problems that come with interdisciplinary research.

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 mindsets 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 mindset. That doesn’t mean we will find either collaboration or interdisciplinary research easy. They aren’t. They are 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.

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 in gilded cages because together we can learn and grow.