Better Recognition for Multidisciplinary Research

The time has come for funding bodies and research institutions to give multidisciplinary researchers due credit when applying for grants, jobs, and promotions. That’s the conclusion of an opinion paper released in June by the Life, Environmental and Geo Sciences Committee of Science Europe, a Brussels-based association of more than 50 funding bodies and research institutions from across Europe that aims to promote the development of a stronger, more inclusive, and more open European research system.

“Young scientists entering multidisciplinary research need to be aware of various challenges that lie ahead in terms of career development. They have to recognize the importance of ‘visibility,’ from early on in their careers,” writes Dirk Inzé, in a statement on behalf of the Science Europe Life, Environmental and Geo Sciences Committee. Inzé is the scientific director of the Department of Plant Systems Biology at the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) at Ghent University in Belgium.

Unfortunately, academic employers, promotion and appointment committees and research funding organizations still use these simplified metrics when evaluating the capacity of a scientist to become a future leader of a research group.

—Dirk Inzé

Research in the life, environmental, and geosciences has come to rely on high-throughput technologies and computational techniques, the Science Europe committee writes in the opinion paper, and such technological advances have ushered in an era where data-intensive science takes center stage and where researchers must increasingly cross disciplinary boundaries to work on large collaborative projects.

Unfortunately, the committee writes, necessary changes in the way researchers are evaluated are lagging. The paper denounces “the lack of clear evaluation metrics for scientists working in multidisciplinary teams,” noting that “[t]he absence of such metrics already has a negative impact on career paths, as many scientists hesitate to participate in multidisciplinary research.”

For those who do enter multidisciplinary research, current authorship standards—which, in the life sciences for example, identify the first author as the researcher who did the most work and the last author as the supervisor of the project—inadequately capture the contributions of different team members, which often are equally valuable. The problem is especially acute for those “contributors from ‘supporting’ disciplines—for example those who deal with data analysis and integration and are not authors of the original hypothesis and/or grant holders,” writes Inzé, on behalf of the committee. Those authors “tend to be placed in the middle of the author list, with no further explanation about their specific input.” To make recognition yet more difficult, different disciplines often use different publishing standards, the opinion paper notes.

Dirk Inzé

Dirk Inzé

CREDIT: Dirk Inzé/VIB, Department of Plant Systems Biology

“Unfortunately, academic employers, promotion and appointment committees and research funding organizations still use these simplified metrics when evaluating the capacity of a scientist to become a future leader of a research group,” Inzé writes. Furthermore, today’s multidisciplinary scientists “are hampered in applying for career development grants. This, in turn, impairs their career advancement as research group leaders, and means that they may be denied funds for future research.”

In the opinion paper, the committee recommends that funding bodies and research institutions value multidisciplinary activity as further evidence of a researcher’s capabilities and achievements. They encourage evaluators to value the contributions of scientists whose work is primarily to generate, analyze, model, or curate data, by using “webometrics”—for example, how often data and applications have been downloaded—alongside more traditional metrics. Finally, the committee would like to make it compulsory for researchers to provide a detailed account of their contributions to each piece of work—e.g., whether they designed the experiments, developed analytic or modeling tools, or wrote the paper—when applying for grants, jobs, tenure, or promotions.

In this respect, some countries are ahead of others. Jeremy Frey, a professor of physical chemistry who co-chairs the interdisciplinary computationally intensive imaging research group at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, and who is not part of the Science Europe committee, writes in an e-mail that researchers working across disciplines may find it more difficult to get funded because their grant applications fall between disciplinary areas, or because they must meet the standards of more than one. Nonetheless, “[i]n the UK the funding agencies up until the cash crunch were enthusiastic promoters of interdisciplinary work, and this enabled much new work to start. Universities in terms of reward (promotion) had a lot of catching up to do, to make their evaluations fit for purpose; many now have,” Frey writes. Even as funding becomes more difficult, Frey expects that “the truly interdisciplinary work will stand out from the crowd.”

Jeremy Frey

Jeremy Frey

CREDIT: Jeremy Frey/University of Southampton

Some types of evaluation, Frey says—including nationwide reviews such as the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise or the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), which have both aimed to assess U.K. universities based on the quality of their research in order to determine how much government funding they should each receive—“have a tendency to act against the interdisciplinary researcher.” In the REF evaluation, individual research faculty members had to list up to four of their best research outputs—journal articles, authored books, patents, software, etc.—to their departments, for submission by their university. Outputs from interdisciplinary researchers may not easily fit within one of the REF evaluation panels. And how well a researcher does in this evaluation influences not only the overall score of her department—hence, its reputation and its funding—but also how successful the researcher will be seen within the department, with possible career consequences.

What can young scientists, wherever they are, do to offset the potential downsides of working in a multidisciplinary field? First and foremost, they must act to boost their visibility, Inzé writes. “This can be achieved by networking with crucial scientific partners, presenting their work in conferences, and working in leading multidisciplinary research infrastructures. In addition to scientific results, young scientists should seek to publish scientific outputs such as methods, algorithms, models, ontologies, repositories, tools and software.”

Inzé also encourages young scientists to join organizations such as the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers, where they can liaise with think tanks and science-policy organizations in support of policies friendlier to interdisciplinary research and researchers. “These combined efforts can help to bring about change that will lead to clear evaluation metrics able to guide the careers of scientists working in multidisciplinary teams,” he says.

More needs to be done to support the careers of young multidisciplinary researchers, Frey argues. “In the UK there have been several initiatives that were fundamentally inter-disciplinary, e.g. the e-Science and Digital Economy [t]hemes,” he writes. While the e-Science program, for example, “really began to create researchers who had a truly interdisciplinary outlook,” its success was short-lived: Just as the first cohorts of students were hitting the job market “and getting very good positions, the funding to train their successors was cut back,” Frey says. “We need to take a longer term view.” He notes that already there are signs in the United Kingdom of a desire to continue supporting interdisciplinary training and tackle global challenges with an interdisciplinary approach.

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