Interdisciplinarity: how universities unlock its power to innovate

14 December 2016

In a paper published today, the League of European Research Universities (LERU) looks at interdisciplinarity as a powerful driver of knowledge creation, scientific progress and innovation.

Interdisciplinary research and education area hotly debated topic at universities. Although knowledge exchange between disciplines has always been part of the scientific enterprise– with breakthroughs often happening at the borders of academic disciplines-, in recent decades interdisciplinarity has rapidly developed in many areas of science and has become a science policy priority, despite strong structural obstacles that still persist today.

That is why the LERU universities have endeavoured to analyse the challenges and opportunities of interdisciplinarity, and to find answers for the following questions in this latest LERU paper, which was launched in Brussels earlier today.

  • Are universities able to break through the historic walls between many large and small disciplines and subdisciplines?
  • How does interdisciplinarity help to solve known and yet to know global, societal challenges, whether it is climate, ageing, security or others?
  • How can universities successfully harness the power of interdisciplinary research and education, while keeping a delicate balance between disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity?
  • What strategies can universities adopt to manage a wide range of interdisciplinary and disciplinary approaches in teaching and research?
  • How can universities create an enabling environment for interdisciplinarity throughout the institution, making sure that researchers at all levels are properly supported and rewarded and that new generations of graduates are properly trained?
  • What can research funders, governments and policy makers do to make sure interdisciplinarity is valued and supported?

The vision of LERU universities is that disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity are equally important to advance science and to solve unprecedented societal challenges. The paper argues that academic institutions that manage to build a virtuous circle between disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity and to successfully harness the potential of interdisciplinary research and education will derive many benefits for themselves, for their staff and for society.

This paper shows how both the drivers and solutions are different for bottom-up, knowledge-driven versus top-down, challenge-driven interdisciplinary research. It analyses how LERU universities reflect on interdisciplinarity and shares their recent strategies, innovative structures and creative projects that have been developed to support interdisciplinarity.

In the paper, LERU also formulates recommendations on interdisciplinarity. To name just a few from the extensive list in the paper, universities may wish to:

  • incorporate interdisciplinarity in governing structures, overseen by senior appointments with strong experience in interdisciplinarity;
  • secure an institutional budget line which is operated in a competitive and transparent manner;
  • build platforms and physical/virtual meeting places for collaborative actions;
  • adjust hiring and promotion practices to value interdisciplinary expertise and skills;
  • develop support from pedagogical units to provide solid interdisciplinary teaching.

Some of the recommendations for funders and governments include:

  • creating specific interdisciplinary research opportunities with earmarked funds;
  • designing innovative schemes, e.g. through multi-institutional and intersectoral collaboration;
  • providing guidance and criteria for evaluation and excellence in interdisciplinarity;
  • making sure enough time is allocated to successfully complete interdisciplinary projects (e.g. five years);
  • evaluating research institutions with regard to their performance in interdisciplinarity.

Download the paper


Policy enquiries

Prof. Kurt Deketelaere, LERU Secretary-General: +32 499 80 89 99 / .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Dr Katrien Maes, LERU Chief Policy Officer: +32 473 97 70 14 / .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Media enquiries

Mr Bart Valkenaers, Press & Communications Officer LERU: +32 498 08 43 49 / .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)