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Jack O'Sullivan

28 November 2019, 9:06 UTC Share

University research thinking needs an extra level

Jack O’Sullivan argues that new think tanks and policy institutes should widen their mission – to embed interdisciplinary thinking about research.

Earlier this year, Carl Gombrich, inspirational founder of the UK’s first interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences course, at UCL, announced that he was leaving. His destination? To lead a university singularly dedicated to interdisciplinary problem solving – the new London Interdisciplinary School. Its first undergraduates arrive in 2020.

Gombrich’s reasoning – ‘how could I resist the opportunity?’ – is utterly believable. But the departure of such a modernising force from the single-subject learning world poses a worrying question. Are traditionally structured universities equipped to do the thinking required to tackle the many great issues that face us?

Higher education institutions recognise that new infrastructure is required to marshal their intellectual capacities around contemporary problems. The recent proliferation of university policy institutes and think tanks – many of them members of UPEN – demonstrate that insight. And a burgeoning of communications departments highlights a commitment to spread the messages and the learning.

Thinking across projects and programmes

Yet, something is missing. Here’s a quick illustrative test. Glance at a website for one of your university’s research programmes. Is it a collection of loosely connected projects? If it is curated under themes, do these correspond with meaningful debate in the outside world or do they mainly reflect the criteria of the funding application? Can you find insightful blogs on the website addressing questions that draw evidence from a wide range of the programme’s projects? In short, looking at the website, is the whole less than the sum of the parts?

Thinking across research is also institutionally challenging for universities as whole. The siloed structure of faculties and departments can make it difficult to explore interdisciplinary questions from the university’s research, be they about climate change, health inequalities, social mobility or child development. The REF can add to the challenge – it provides little reward for working collaboratively across university disciplines, except in so far as that work may increase impact.

Given these institutional constraints, researchers understandably focus on their specific projects. In a number of universities where I have worked, research funding and monitoring have rarely demanded that they build interdisciplinary stories from research programmes.

Making more of multi-university research programmes

I’ve seen this pattern repeated even in some large, multi-university research programmes, which are meant to foster collaboration and cross-fertilisation. Principal investigators have been well-versed in research that is managed within their own university, but sometimes have had less understanding of what their partners were doing. Colleagues leading the programme in partner universities maintained a cordial, undemanding relationship with one another, rooted in dividing up the research grant and not bothering each other much. That’s not likely to be a recipe for big, creative thinking or new ways of looking at problems.

Intra-programme dialogue can get a fillip around year 3 or 4, when worries emerge about refunding. There may be a scramble to construct overarching narratives. But by then it may already be too late. Everyone is busy writing up and moving on. Researchers are looking for their next projects. It could be so different, if conversations had started earlier.

How might one address this challenge to develop more interdisciplinary, inter-project, intra- and cross-university thinking? Communications staff can disseminate but they typically lack subject expertise and are too far from programmes to host the thinking and generate the content. University think tanks and policy institutes can make inroads by focussing research findings on policy implications but policy is just one part of the thinking that’s required.

New structures to host interdisciplinary thinking

In the long term, universities will probably need to develop overarching structures designed to foster interdisciplinary thinking across their research programmes. Perhaps that’s part of what Carl Gombrich may pioneer at the London Interdisciplinary School.

Making the change will require considerable flexibility from traditional university structures. That won’t be easy. Some in UPEN’s network know this only too well – think tanks and policy institutes are, by their nature, cross-university structures. Yet some struggle to find their place when they are expected to squeeze themselves into existing institutional frameworks.

What can be done? The big challenge is to catalyse and liberate insights and thinking by bringing people together who would not otherwise share time. They need incentives to talk and collaborate. The prize is university research that operates at the peak of its potential rather than following established pathways of thought generation.

Workshops to develop thinking and narratives

A first step – parking, for now, the bureaucratic challenge of institutionalising this change – is to demonstrate its benefits. In my work in universities, I find that simple processes can help, such as two hour workshops, that bring researchers together to interrogate, frame, express and record thinking beyond immediate projects, feeding it all back to the team, university or to the outside world.

This is an achievable beginning because it involves minimal cost and time commitment for the researchers involved, while yielding insights that the researchers themselves may not have realised they had. It’s also great fun. Through this process, we develop blogs that provide a simple demonstration of the ideas that can be generated. They are exemplars of what could be achieved if universities re-evaluated their structures and funders/governments rethought their financial incentives.

But the process is frustrating. It’s prone to stalling, as researchers struggle with their day to day pressures. It can easily end when an academic leader moves on. Such processes need to be embedded within universities.

Additional role for university policy institutes

So, here’s a challenge that university policy institutes and think tanks might consider. It’s increasingly accepted that they should host thinking about the policy implications of research. But that is just the start of an even bigger change needed to broaden university research thinking. They could expand their mission. They could become the champions and leaders of much wider, interdisciplinary practice, questioning and cross-fertilisation that is achievable but currently missing in parts of many universities.

Jack O’Sullivan directs a consultancy which supports innovative thinking in universities and government. Earlier this year, he co-authored a handbook for academics and policy makers, entitled Transforming Research and Policy and developed the new Metropolis think tank website for Manchester Metropolitan University. He was previously Associate Editor and leader writer in economics and social policy at the ‘Independent’.

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