The value of multidisciplinarity in university research collaborations

By Dr Federica Rossi, Associate Professor, Universita’ di Modena e Reggio Emilia; Deputy Director, CIMR ; Co-Investigator, Evidence and Impacts – NCACE

Multidisciplinary research benefits

There is now a large amount of evidence that multidisciplinary research in a broad sense delivers numerous benefits. Multidisciplinary research is more likely to lead to breakthrough discoveries, and to be used by other scientists in the production of further knowledge.

Since real-life problems are often multi-faceted and require complex solutions, multidisciplinary research is more likely to be implemented in innovations. It is also more likely to address problems that are of relevance to society. Finally, multidisciplinary research is associated with greater emphasis on issues of relevance to local communities, and tends to relate to specific problems that need to be solved.

Yet, the practice of multidisciplinarity remains fraught with challenges. A new State of the Art Review, commissioned by the Innovation & Research Caucus and carried out by Dr Federica Rossi, considers the challenges of multidisciplinary research, some proposed solutions to address the latter, and some open research questions.

Multidisciplinary research challenges

In terms of challenges, the review argues that multidisciplinarity is complex, does not happen by itself, it must be organised systematically and accompanied in a coordinating and supportive way. Individual incentives for multidisciplinarity are often lacking, or averse. For individual scientists, engaging in multidisciplinarity can lead to lower scientific productivity, lower funding success, and slower career progression – though this is not true for all scientific fields. Even when scientists are not dissuaded from engaging in multi-disciplinary research from the adverse incentives present in the academic system, they might find that the practice of multidisciplinarity is fraught with obstacles, including problems with the process of research collaboration and problems with the engagement of societal actors.

Interventions for increased multidisciplinary research

Building on the review of the literature, the report suggests that key interventions to promote multidisciplinary research may include:

  • Use of design thinking and other methodologies to support multidisciplinary research – recent works suggest that human-centered design can be used to foster multidisciplinary conversations and advance research agendas. This stream of work is only at the beginning and could bring promising results.
  • Remove institutional barriers to the formation of multidisciplinary research teams and projects, particularly to facilitate ‘distal’ multidisciplinarity. Many of these reiterate well known approaches such as: expanding support for shared research facilities, establishing “grand challenges” to support alignment, cooperation, and integration of efforts and approaches across academia, industry, and government, fostering collaboration between academia and industry in different ways.
  • Removing institutional barriers within universities – traditional disciplinary structures, usually in the form of academic departments or faculties, may impede multidisciplinarity. It is therefore important for universities to move beyond the talk of multidisciplinarity to addressing structural and administrative barriers.
  • Removing institutional barriers to multidisciplinarity: learning from failures – there is a need for more analyses of cases where multidisciplinarity failed to emerge, where multidisciplinary teams fell apart or experienced major conflict, as well as cases where multidisciplinarity thrived in under-resourced environments.
  • Properly evaluating the societal impact of multidisciplinary research – the understanding of the processes through which societal impact is produced and the evaluation of the impact itself remain quite elusive.

Want to learn more about the topic? Here’s a link to the full report and to the policy briefing: