A multidisciplinary future for university research

Research in the United Kingdom is facing a time of great change, challenge and opportunity.

Major reviews of the way it is funded, assessed and organised present universities with the chance to explore new avenues and approaches, as well as requiring many to make some difficult choices. The UK’s decision to leave the European Union will add further uncertainty to the situation.

As policy changes take shape in this new environment, further ambitions around multidisciplinary research seem very likely to emerge.

Of course, plenty of multidisciplinary work was supported across the Research Councils UK before the government adopted Paul Nurse’s recommendations for a fundamental shift in the research landscape. But one explicit aim of the proposal to bring the research councils under one umbrella organisation, UK Research and Innovation or UKRI, is to encourage and aid multidisciplinary research.

Since UKRI will also absorb Innovate UK, it might be reasonable to expect an increase in the amount of cross-working that has already been taking place between Research Councils UK and Innovate UK.

Here, it is important not to assume that research and innovation are independent and separate entities. In fact, the new structure represents an opportunity to move away from such linear descriptions and to adopt instead the language of an ecosystem approach that recognises that research/innovation interactions occur with most new ideas.

Assessing multidisciplinary projects

The UK government has already sent a clear signal that it sees the value of multidisciplinary research through the announcement of the £1.5 billion (US$2 billion) Global Challenges Research Fund. Most of that money remains unallocated to any one research council so represents a significant shift of funding from discrete research areas to cross-council projects paid for out of Official Development Assistance.

There are undoubtedly a series of scientific problems that require a multidisciplinary solution yet these changes are not without their challenges.

Finding good panels that can assess multidisciplinary projects is a well-known challenge. And the way that the recent Research Excellence Framework dealt with multidisciplinarity needs to evolve away from a system organised around Units of Assessment with fixed disciplinary boundaries, and the acknowledged problems of peer-reviewing such work. Happily, these are questions currently under consideration by the Stern Review.

The way universities have been traditionally structured does not help either. Rather than putting people together based on their research interests, we have tended to physically locate them in disciplinary-focused teaching departments. Some universities have attempted to break this model, but not always with great success.

Multidisciplinary research institutes

At the University of Leicester, we are beginning to address this by launching four new multidisciplinary research institutes in Precision Medicine, Structural and Chemical Biology, Space and Earth Observation Science, and Cultural Media and Creative Economies.

Multidisciplinary research institutes are not new as a concept – there are plenty of examples in the United States and a growing number in the UK. But I believe the approach we will take at Leicester will be distinctive, and the timing of our launch is significant, given the current policy environment.

The word ‘institute’ has a certain cachet, but without careful management there is a risk that they can become little more than coalitions of the willing sustained by heroes. They should be ongoing ventures that are more targeted than research networks where people from various disciplines are simply encouraged to work together.

As our Richard III research has shown, Leicester already has a strong track record of multidisciplinary working, but we want to build on this and take it to the next level in our institutes, which will act as beacons of excellence across areas where we are particularly strong.

As we establish the institutes, we will also be grappling with the challenges of funding, governance and internal communication that other universities seeking to follow a similar route also face.

In order to deliver what we are asking of them, our institutes will have their own budgets and a good level of autonomy, underpinned by clear measures of performance. That does not sit well with the traditional structure of an institution where departments are like the vertical pillars through which research funding usually flows. The institutes need to be more like horizontal girders of research excellence spanning the university.

Getting buy-in

Failure to achieve buy-in for institutes across the institution has been a stumbling block for universities in the past. It is important to get across to staff the clear message that we are not throwing all our eggs in one basket, and that we will continue to support excellent research outside of the institutes.

We must establish a 'win-win' situation in which the institutes generate additional research income that will benefit all staff, whether or not they are themselves working within one.

They will also help produce and train academics with experience of multidisciplinary work. This should prove invaluable for the future supply of peer reviewers who will be better able to assess the value of multidisciplinary research, creating the kind of virtuous cycle we aspire to.

We expect students will also become involved, both at postgraduate and undergraduate levels. We are already paving the way for a new generation of multidisciplinary thinkers through our Pathways programme – one of the most flexible curriculums in the UK – which allows students to combine insights from different disciplines to achieve a broader understanding. They will be able to take this a step further by working on research projects inspired and supported by the institutes.

Of course, our move in this direction does not mean we do not recognise the continuing importance of employing academics who have been trained in single disciplines and have a very valuable expertise and experience that comes from that grounding.

The foundations of multidisciplinary work are strong disciplines. But we need a cadre of people who can think across disciplines more freely.

We also believe that the new research landscape will boost multidisciplinary research and innovation between universities – both at home and abroad – and particularly between those that already collaborate within their region. The recent launch of Midlands Innovation, which includes six research intensive universities in our region, is an excellent example.

We have to recognise that intra-university research runs a risk of not having the very best minds working together. We need a system that allows increasingly fluid interaction between researchers wherever they may be based.

Some in the sector may see aspects of the proposed changes as a threat, but we think these concerns are outweighed by the opportunities. Ultimately, what we are striving to create is a more balanced research ecosystem that will leave us better placed to stimulate imaginative thinking and achieve advances in our understanding of the world around us.

Professor Paul Boyle is vice-chancellor and president of the University of Leicester, UK.