Evaluating interdisciplinary research in Europe – what next?


The workshop was designed as part of Sci-GENERATION ’s efforts to promote new and emerging research topics as well as research methods. The organisers will integrate ideas and recommendations into a white paper presenting policy makers with the needs of next-generation research methodologies.

Workshop highlights

Participants were first presented with results from a recent survey across 14 funding agencies in 9 European countries. Only 6 of the responsive agencies differentiated between mono- and interdisciplinary research and none of the respondents had different evaluation methods in place. Despite this, all agreed on thehigh level of risk of interdisciplinary proposals. Findings also showed no earmarked funds for interdisciplinary work. Setting out recommendations, the Network indicated that the purpose of their work was not to promote interdisciplinary research as the best method to solve scientific questions but rather the ensure that when the scientific question begs for an interdisciplinary approach, these projects are evaluated fairly and without bias.

Another issue participants brought up were the various definitions of “transdisciplinarity”. The absence of a common understanding of the term is apparently fuelled by one of the survey outcomes: science policy makers themselves are questioning definitions and adding new ideas.

INTREPID, a newly funded Trans-Domain COST Action, is focusing on interdisciplinary research. To emphasise its importance, the network chose sustainable urban development as an example of interdisciplinarity as well as a way of advancing interdisciplinary work by building a critical mass. Having already planned training schools on interdisciplinary research methods, this COST Action sets out as an ambitious initiative.

New links with the Targeted network GenderSTE could also prove valuable. This Targeted Network is researching how sex and gender are reflected in technological development and innovation processes, with a view on urban policy.

A clear example of a learning organisation, theEuropean Research Council (ERC) showed how its approach to evaluating interdisciplinary research had evolved over the years. Dr Alejandro Martin-Hobdey from the European Commission explained that the ERC started with a breakdown in domains with 13% of its budget dedicated to interdisciplinary proposals, which proved quite complex and did not allow enough time for a proper evaluation of each proposal. The scheme brought in the co-investigator grants, where two researchers would bridge the two disciplines, and for a brief period, the multi-beneficiary synergy grant pilot scheme (not currently running anymore). In general, applicants’ proposals are subject to a cross-panel evaluation, having to indicate both a main panel and a second one they considered should review their project idea. In order to avoid fragmentation and exclusion, all panels have broad expertise.

Going back to terminology, Professor Emeritus Svend Erik Larsen from Aarhus University insisted on the origin of three concepts still used differently within research communities or universities: inter-, multi- and transdisciplinarity. Summing up his advice to early-career investigators, Dr Larsen pointed out they should use these terms as the university or funding agency they are applying to understand them. However, given the often wide definitions, project proposals should indicate precisely what their interpretation of the concept is. Universities and funding agencies, on the other hand, should not make a choice for terms in order not to exclude proposals. Dr Larsen also insisted on addressing and suggesting new ideas for peer review criteria, emphasising young researchers’ right to be fully informed about them.

Lastly, Prof. Catherine Lyall from the University of Edinburgh reported on a study looking at the full cost and effectiveness of the UK Research Councils’ peer review process. The study showed that preparation and submission make up for the costliest processes, adding up to 74% of the total costs. As a result, any initiatives to improve peer review efficiency would mean reducing time for preparing proposals or reducing the number of proposals.

Overall, research funding in the UK is considered highly efficient, as the annual number of proposals to Research Councils has doubled over the past 25 years, with a 20% increase over the last 9 years. Another corroborating fact is the fall in administrative costs from 4.7% (between 1988-1989) to 4% in 2005-2006. Prof. Lyall concluded by proposing adialogue between peer reviewers and proposers, allowing for more flexible review timetables and longer proposals justifying their interdisciplinary design. This would see funders facing the bigger challenge of balancing flexibility, cost efficiency and parity.