"Risk must be rewarded"

Interdisciplinarity is an entirely separate process that brings university structures into question, according to the expert Frédéric Darbellay. Interview by Daniel Saraga

(From "Horizons" no. 107, December 2015)

You interviewed 65 researchers active in 10 interdisciplinary research centres in Switzerland. What conclusions did you reach?

Let’s start with the good news: Swiss researchers are committed to interdisciplinarity,
‘ID’. That said, the majority of them think that it fails to garner recognition as a
distinct form of research.

What exactly do you mean by that?

ID often emerges as an approach to broad issues or problems that don’t fit neatly into
a single discipline, for example those related to education, environment or health.
The method therefore usually resembles the problem-solution approach, as opposed
to more traditional research, which usually sets out from a specific question emanating from a specific discipline.

The first step in dialogue is being sure of your identity. Do ID researchers worry about losing their academic credentials?

Academic communities are very clearly delimited, and they contribute to the way we define ourselves. Our study shows that researchers don’t generally feel fenced in. But they are not all the same either. The ‘migrants’ move from one discipline to another,
such as physicists who study sociology. The ‘thematicians’ are driven by issues, e.g. gender or cultural studies. And the ‘natives’ start out in ID.

ID appears sometimes to be merely a buzz word, used by researchers to keep management happy.

There’s always a risk of being trapped in multidisciplinarity, in other words simply
juxtaposing disciplines without creating anything novel. There’s more to it than just saying ‘we’re going ID’. First you have to explain how the theoretical framework is to be jointly created. Then there are the objective evaluation criteria: have researchers developed federating concepts? Which tools did they use to organise their joint work?

What is holding ID back?

It’s mainly a structural issue. Each discipline has its language, concepts and specific methods, added to which they each also have a fixed institutional position within a university. Faculties are hierarchical. Some researchers hold things back because ID brings into question not only their power but also the underlying structure of the university. Scientists are the occupying forces of academic territories, and they want things to stay that way. The etymology of ‘discipline’ has the Latin root ‘disciplina’, a whip used to discipline oneself or others …

Is it possible to re-examine the existence of a discipline?

That’s still a taboo, because we’re talking about a principal factor in the identity of a researcher. It leads to reactions such as, ‘why would anyone want to question my area of specialisation?’

Is it difficult to undertake a career in ID?

Yes, a career path in ID is often a mismatch with the current academic system. Some ID researchers tell us that during recruitment processes, they have to opt for highly disciplinary profiles. If they are to move forward with their careers, they have to belong to a group of peers, as it’s peers who will judge them, publish them and finance them. For now, those on the standard academic trajectory have no incentive to behave differently.

There is dedicated financing for ID, but work needs to be done to ensure universities also make ID careers and training attractive. Risk-taking needs to be rewarded. It’s worth noting that a researcher normally has to justify undertaking ID research. But why not ask the opposite: why would they want to restrict themselves to their domain?

You see ID researchers as hackers, why is that?

A hacker is a handyman, able to combine diverse elements in order to change a system from within. The individual disciplines constantly progress by themselves, not least as the result of ID research. In fact, ID is a driving force for transforming the university.

Frédéric Darbellay is a professor at the Centre for Children’s Rights Studies of the University of Geneva. He contributes to the position on ID of the League of European Research Universities (LERU).