Interdisciplinary science and innovation: The problem of Rewards & Recognition

Chiara Lisciandra (University of Groningen)

Interdisciplinary research is one of the hallmarks of contemporary science. Several examples illustrate the influence of interdisciplinarity on today’s science. Think, for instance, of interdisciplinary programs and research centres, such as the IPCC or the CERN, where hundreds of scientists with different disciplinary backgrounds, skillsets, and expertise work together for the solution of joint problems (Frodeman et al. 2017).

One of the arguments that is often made to support interdisciplinary science is that typically, a correlation exists between interdisciplinarity on the one hand and impact and innovation on the other (Andersen 2013, Bourguignon 2020). The underlying idea is that some of the biggest challenges of our times—such as global health, inequality, or climate change (NSF 2020; Tuana 2013)—are too broad and complex to be tackled by individual disciplines alone. Interdisciplinary teams are key in finding innovative solutions, and given the societal relevance of such challenges, progress towards their solutions will likely deliver impactful results.

The increasing academic and societal demand for interdisciplinarity, however, has raised the issue of how to reward and recognize interdisciplinary outputs. As it is acknowledged in the literature, criteria based on standard publication metrics are mostly inadequate for interdisciplinary work. Among other things, this is because such metrics are typically based on journals’ influence scores or articles’ citation impact, which can hardly reveal the significance of fields that are relatively recent, typically small in size, and exploring new research methods and strategies.

In order to sidestep this problem, one of the proposals that is currently under discussion (VSNU 2019) is to use alternative metrics and qualitative analysis that use impact as a proxy to measure interdisciplinary work. In this paper, I claim that this proposal does not go to the heart of the issue because it overly shifts the focus to interdisciplinary work in the applied science, while interdisciplinarity can bring innovative contributions to fundamental science as well. As an alternative, I will develop a proposal for measuring interdisciplinary projects that, rather than impact, takes into account the disciplines involved and the distance between them on the basis of their explanatory dimensions.