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Opportunities and challenges for Norwegian interdisciplinary research

The Research Council of Norway has commissioned a case-study based review of interdisciplinary research in Norway. It has also taken a closer look at whether interdisciplinary project applications are discriminated against in the open competitive funding scheme for independent projects (FRIPRO).

“The Research Council seeks to encourage and promote interdisciplinary research. Solving major societal challenges requires approaches that cross boundaries between disciplines and give rise to new research methods for analysing complex, interdisciplinary issues. This is similar to the path the EU is pursuing in its mission-oriented efforts in the next framework programme for research and innovation,” says Chief Executive of the Research Council, John-Arne Røttingen.

“Extensive research also shows that an interdisciplinary  approach is essential to facilitating major research breakthroughs,” he continues. “These often occur at the interfaces between different research fields and in the areas of divergence between different fields of knowledge.”

Technopolis report on interdisciplinary research

Technopolis has drawn up a report for the Research Council on interdisciplinary research in Norway. It shows that Norwegian universities attach strategic importance to interdisciplinary research and are creating structures and facilities to support such research.

However, the report also points out many barriers to interdisciplinary research. Educational programmes focus on particular fields of study, which can lead to a lack of interdisciplinary skills. Universities and their associated administrative and financial systems are organised by discipline, and there are differences from field to field with regard to conceptual understanding, norms and methodological requirements. In addition, it is difficult to publish interdisciplinary articles in top-rated journals and the present structure of the Norwegian Scientific Index entails strong financial disincentives against interdisciplinary publication.

The Technopolis report is based on a similar review of interdisciplinary research in England. It documents clear parallels between measures designed to stimulate and increase interdisciplinary research in Norwegian and English contexts – including interdisciplinary networking opportunities, training students to employ interdisciplinary thinking, securing external funding for interdisciplinary research, creating a supportive research environment and culture and implementing measures that span the divisions between institutional structures such as departments and faculties.

Based on their observations, the authors recommend that the following elements are considered when developing policies or measures to promote interdisciplinary research in Norway:

  • A collaborative and supportive research environment where IDR is accepted as a legitimate and valuable activity is very important for fostering IDR
  • Priority research themes can provide a focus for IDR and galvanise research activity towards addressing research problems in that area
  • Co-location of different disciplines in one place is not a prerequisite for IDR. However, a space, either physical or virtual, for the collision of ideas is necessary
  • Both top-down and bottom-up approaches can be used to grow and support IDR. However, a top-down approach will need buy-in from academics while bottom-up approaches will need institutional support to remain successful in the long run
  • Involvement of key staff, for example, strategic leaders as ‘champions of IDR’ within and outside research institutions can help to increase the visibility of the institution’s IDR internally as well as externally and to embed it in institutional structures and culture
  • A formal evaluation of IDR activity within institutions will provide useful intelligence regarding factors affecting the success and failure of interdisciplinary collaborations. Similarly, an evaluation of peer review processes for awarding research funding will help to allay concerns regarding bias against interdisciplinary proposals and the capability of reviewers and expert panels to review them

(extract from the report)

Interdisciplinary and monodisciplinary projects on equal footing in FRIPRO

The Research Council recently conducted an evaluation such as that called for by Technopolis. In the last three years the Council has assessed whether the FRIPRO scheme for independent projects has allocated less funding to interdisciplinary project proposals than to monodisciplinary ones. An analysis was carried out based on the 3 800 applications received and 430 applications approved in the 2016-2018 period.

The results indicate that FRIPRO does not discriminate against interdisciplinary projects. Overall, about 60 per cent of the applications received were interdisciplinary. Correspondingly, about 60 per cent of projects granted funding were interdisciplinary.

To obtain an indication of the types of interdisciplinary cooperation receiving support, the Research Council conducted an additional analysis of a random sampling of 40 projects among those classified as interdisciplinary and which had received funding in 2018. The following three categories were used:

  • Multidisciplinary cooperation: additive cooperation between academic subjects or disciplines, but entailing little integrated cooperation on theory and methodology.
  • Interdisciplinary cooperation: integrated research cooperation, including cooperation on theory and methodology and on implementation through joint project group(s) with participation from multiple disciplines.
  • Transdisciplinary research fields: full integration/knowledge transfer between segments of disciplines resulting in the development/establishment of new/independent research fields with the characteristics of disciplines, such as nanoscience, cybernetics and bioinformatics.

The results show that 83 per cent of the projects are clearly interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary, while only 17 per cent were multidisciplinary.

“We will continue to ensure that interdisciplinary project applications receive optimal treatment in our review processes. We will also continually assess the need for further analysis of these issues,” Dr Røttingen says.

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