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Are research institutes fulfilling their interdisciplinary roles in universities?

August 25, 2020

By Dr. Paul Bolger

The number of research centres and institutes within universities has exploded in the last two decades, but how effective have they been in delivering on their interdisciplinary goals?

A key raison d’etre for establishing a research centre or institute is to bring together researchers from multiple disciplines in a particular area of research study, and to foster interdisciplinary collaboration. You don’t have to read too far into mission statements and websites to encounter a goal to be cross-, multi-, inter-, or trans- disciplinary.

The establishment of interdisciplinary research centres and institutes has been a key structural response for universities interested in embedding interdisciplinarity within the university research system, as it enables universities to retain traditional departments while having a locus to address the grand challenges of society in an interdisciplinary approach.

Yet we know little about how well they achieve this role. Are they just a “laundry list” of affiliates and a nexus of loosely connected individuals searching for intersections rather than cohesive groups tackling well-defined problems, as suggested by Diana Rhoten (2003)?

In a survey of two hundred faculty in three sustainability research institutes based in the USA, I found a surprisingly positive view of interdisciplinary research within these institutes. Key findings include:

  • The vast majority of faculty interviewed (>90%) perceive interdisciplinarity to be always or usually essential to address sustainability research questions and challenges.
  • Over 95% of faculty indicate that they are doing research with faculty outside their own discipline; 50% of faculty are spending more than two-thirds of their time working with colleagues outside their own discipline.
  • Over half of faculty members work across the natural-social sciences boundary which is seen as crucial for sustainability science.
  • 99% of surveyed faculty indicated that interdisciplinary research should be a core part of the mission and activities of their institute.
  • More than four out of five faculty indicated that their institute has enabled interdisciplinary research opportunities that would have not have been possible in their home school and would like to participate more frequently in interdisciplinary research.
  • More than four out of five of faculty members perceive that support from the institute is sometimes, usually, or always important to their interdisciplinary research efforts and consider their research institute to play a valuable and supportive role in facilitating their research efforts.
  • Faculty perceive that the important supports that the institute can offer are to provide seed funding for interdisciplinary research projects and to foster an open and visibly collaborative environment.

The study provides evidence that research centres and institutes are fulfilling their mission within universities to bring interdisciplinary teams together to work on relevant research questions, but how generalisable are the results beyond the three institutes studied? What has your experience been?

The exciting challenge for centre and institute leaders is to continue to provide location-specific responses to enable interdisciplinary research teams and projects that faculty perceive:

  • as being intellectually worthwhile
  • will have impactful outcomes, and
  • will support their academic progression.

If you lead such a centre or institute what strategies have you used to achieve these goals? Are there other goals that you have set?

To find out more:
Bolger P. (2020). A study of faculty perceptions and engagement with interdisciplinary research in university sustainability institutes. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 1-15. (Online) (DOI):


Rhoten D. (2003). A Multi-method Analysis of the Social and Technical Conditions for Interdisciplinary Collaboration. The Hybrid Vigor Institute, BCS-0129573, final report for the National Science Foundation, San Francisco, United States of America. (Online)

Biography: Paul Bolger PhD is manager of the Environmental Research Institute at University College Cork, Ireland. He has worked across academia, industry and government for over 20 years developing long term research solutions for global sustainability challenges. He is a 2019 Fulbright-EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) Scholar, as part of which he examined how interdisciplinary research is being facilitated at sustainability research institutes at Arizona State University, Cornell University, Colombia University and Duke University to achieve more robust research outcomes.