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The frustrating truth about interdisciplinary institutes.

by Susie Hills | Sep 5, 2017 | News, Strategy & Transformation

We all know that we cannot solve the biggest problems facing our society, economy or environment without working across disciplines.

Funders and philanthropists know they can’t achieve the impact they seek without encouraging interdisciplinary working and academics know that some of the most exciting and impactful research is being done in this interdisciplinary space. Young academics are interested in developing their careers in an interdisciplinary environment and the students of the future seem less concerned with disciplinary boundaries.

All this should mean that the various interdisciplinary institutes in our universities are thriving.

The frustrating truth is that the way our universities are structured, governed and managed places obstacles in the path of an interdisciplinary approach.

Many institutions have been creating physical space in which researchers (and less often students) from a variety of disciplines can work together – building some form of interdisciplinary institute. Interdisciplinary institutes which endeavour to capitalise on these spaces or seek to foster collaboration in a “virtual” space have existed for many years and continue to be created.

This trend has been encouraged through the availability of capital funding through HEFCE and foundations such as Wellcome and Wolfson.

Around the UK architects have been briefed to create space that fosters interdisciplinary working and their solutions are beautiful and often a joy to work in.

From the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campus. Funded through EU Convergence monies.

To the Discovery Centre at University of Dundee. Funded through a Wellcome-Wolfson Capital Award in Biomedical Science of £5 million and a £12 million award through the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund.

Most of these new buildings share some common features – informal social and workspaces, cafes, flexible meeting spaces, open-plan offices and shared lab spaces.

However, it takes more than a new building to bring about an increase in interdisciplinary research.

Without changes in the way we run our universities it will is hard for an interdisciplinary institute to deliver an increased volume of interdisciplinary research (and associated research income).

Success lies in rethinking three fundamental management processes:

  • The way we measure success
  • The way we build budgets
  • The way we govern

1. Measuring success

How is the measurement of success in academia discouraging interdisciplinary research? Sounds like a good PhD topic but I am not an academic so here is the management consultant’s view.

It appears that the way the sector manages and rewards academic performance may be preventing the very behaviours that it must encourage for interdisciplinary work to flourish.

As an academic, a key factor in your career prospects is the assessment of your research output and quality: the number of citations you get and the research income you win. Your career is advanced by these methods and the institution’s performance is measured and rewarded by the sum of these parts.

Indeed some academics believe that institutions didn’t submit interdisciplinary work into the REF as it was seen to be too risky – because of these issues.

Certainly, HEFCE itself is not underestimating the obstacles to interdisciplinary working and has a panel set up to advise the REF team, REF panel chairs and the UK funding bodies on approaches to support the submission and assessment of interdisciplinary research in REF 2021.

And it’s not just a UK problem. HEFCE’s 2015 research showed a lower citation impact associated with interdisciplinary research among all countries examined.

So how can an individual institution tackle this when it’s a sector issue?

Universities need to be aware of the weaknesses of current performance indicators in terms of measuring success and rewarding the staff within our interdisciplinary institutions.

It’s vital to consider additional measures to recognise and reward interdisciplinary work. For example, recognising how this work contributes to international reputation.

Consideration should be given to:

  • Setting longer-term targets.
  • Understanding whether interdisciplinary working is performing less well against your current measures and establishing why.
  • Mapping collaborative work to see how staff are working together at each stage of the research process.
  • Providing better guidance and support on publications and research grant applications to academics
  • Influencing the funding bodies and their panels.
  • Putting in place targeting PR activities which assist with profile and reputation.

2. Building the budget

Whilst interdisciplinary institutes and the beautiful buildings which house them are usually justified by the promise of increased research income and enabled through the availability of capital funding it is vital that longer-term business plans are created. A five-year budget should be built before the building is!

It sounds obvious but many institute’s plans are signed off without detailed planning of the income which will result (and especially how it will change and be sustained over time) and the operational costs which will have to be funded. And, crucially, how this will work internally with the existing budgets.

Existing planning models tend to drive University professional services staff towards developing budgets for ‘business units’ – colleges, schools, faculties, departments (whatever each institution calls them). But the very nature of interdisciplinary work is that it crosses these departmental boundaries and so requires some form of sharing of budgets. Disciplinary heads have their own targets and priorities, prising resource from existing disciplines to create what may often perceive as a competitor is not straight forward. Asking for more resource later to let them grow and thrive can be even more fraught.

Unless the university finds ways to ensure that money flows towards activity instead of structural units, then it can be extremely hard for interdisciplinary teams to secure budget.

Research makes a loss in terms of full economic costings. With the right research funder it can break even or perhaps even make a small surplus (especially if another donor has paid for the building). What is cannot do is create the resources to allow it to grow and change, for this it needs to be underpinned by student fee income and other income, just like a traditional academic discipline.

If the planned institute is going to be research only and the teaching will remain in the participating departments then there has to be a plan as to how the institute’s operational costs will be covered – either through contributions from participating departments or through a central budget. The institute will also need access to additional funding to allow it to change, grow and thrive once the original funding for the institute has gone.

If students are taught the plans must consider the additional costs of delivering interdisciplinary courses. It takes more staff to create content and deliver courses. It also creates a logistical strain for the departments involved as they try to map out the teaching work that will be carried out by their staff. It creates a budgetary issue as to whether you ‘buy out’ staff time and the institute keeps the fee income or whether the fee income is apportioned out back to the “owner” departments minus the overheads of the institutes. In budget-constrained times departments will need to know how this will affect their finances and in effect be able to see ‘what’s in it for them’ other than just another competitor.

3. Governance

Existing academic disciplines have often been with a University since their inception. The governance and management structures were designed in an endeavour to facilitate their success. Interdisciplinary institutes (by definition) exist without the benefit of these structures.

For an institute to thrive it will need a champion to drive not only its creation but to sustain its growth and impact. Of course, this is great, whilst the champions remain in post, but creating a successful institute requires talent, tact and energy (the very attributes that often mean such champions progress rapidly to another post).

If interdisciplinary institutes are to be sustainable and grow they need to be given a voice in the governance structure commensurate with the strategic hopes and aspirations placed upon them.

Consideration needs to be given to how they are represented in the management structures and how beholden are they to existing disciplines. Get this wrong and they may be doomed to a slow decline from the moment the institute is created. How visible are they to governors, how are their successes (and failings) noted and actioned.

Having a champion is a great start for a new institute, but to be successful in the longer term it needs to be appropriately embedded in the management and governance structures.

To sum up:

  • Building of a shiny new building won’t in itself lead to an increase in interdisciplinary research
  • Our management systems put obstacles in place of interdisciplinary working
  • Our current measurements of success do not reward Interdisciplinary research
  • Champions can set them up and help them grow but appropriate management and governance is required to allow them to become sustainable.

This means that we need to:

  • Build budgets in a different way
  • Define additional performance measures
  • Think more broadly about ROI
  • Consider how they fit in management and governance structures**

At the outset of the planning process for a new institute, it is crucial that as much (or more) thought must be given governance, management, planning and budgets as is given to the design of the building. That means having absolute clarity as to:

  • How governance, management and departmental structures will be adapted to facilitate the institute.
  • What the performance indicators for the institute will be and how these will contribute to the overall university performance.
  • What the annual planning and budgetary process for the institute will look like (especially how operational costs will be met and how money will flow between the institute and departments involved).
  • What income will be generated (from all sources) – thus establishing the ROI
  • The human resource requirements – How the institute will be staffed and how their time will be allocated.
  • Whether there will be an UG or PG teaching offer and how it will be delivered.
  • What support functions will be required (and how will these be paid for).
  • What reputational impact is expected and how will this be delivered through a communications and PR strategy.

Scrimping on management planning whilst the excitement of the architectural planning process takes place may prove a costly mistake.

Halpin can provide detailed management planning services to support your plans for a new interdisciplinary institute.

Our team can also assist with the review and restructure of an existing institute. These projects require the focussed time and expertise of a variety of experts from governance, finance, planning and campus services to research, marketing and commercialisation. We will bring together the right team to help you plan or review your institute with confidence.

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