The creativity of interdisciplinary research

Graeme Reid

Professor Graeme Reid is Professor of Science and Research Policy at University College London. He chairs the Board of the National Physical Laboratory. He worked in the Business Department, the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury before moving to UCL in 2014. While at UCL, he led research policy reviews for the Scottish Funding Council and Welsh Government and has advised the UK Government and Parliament. He is a member of the Council of Research England and strategic adviser to the National Centre for Universities and Business.


  • Individual disciplines have an important role
  • Interdisciplinary research can be a creative process
  • A range of funders support interdisciplinary research
  • There is no single model for successful research environments
  • It would be helpful to have more role models for interdisciplinary researchers.

I want to start with a few words in defence of disciplines. Academic disciplines are cornerstones of the research ecosystem. They often provide a sense of identity for individual researchers and they provide a framework for professional training, for example in medicine, engineering or economics. They allow professionals to be trained for careers in an environment that is rich in research, where professional training and the discovery of new knowledge coexist. That coexistence of knowledge discovery and professional training is one of the many advantages of doing research in universities.

Collaborating across disciplines can be difficult. There are often differences in values, jargon, career paths and professional expertise. There are also different sources of funding and different expectations, so forming teams across disciplines comes with an administrative overhead. However, the interfaces between disciplines can be sources of creativity, allowing people with a variety of professional backgrounds to view a research challenge from distinct perspectives.

At the National Physical Laboratory, I encounter fascinating interfaces as NPL embeds very high precision measurements – often at the very limits of the laws of physics – into standards and regulation that underpin the work of businesses and public bodies right across the economy of the UK. That interplay between physics and international standards is an immensely creative process.


Ever more funders support interdisciplinary research: some have done so for many decades. Several charitable institutions and Government Departments support research that addresses interdisciplinary challenges. They want combinations of disciplines that are needed to address a problem. UKRI also has a long history of interdisciplinary work. We cannot expect UKRI alone to build a perfect interdisciplinary research environment but it does have an important leadership role.

Then there is the question of institutional structures. Universities are wonderful places to create interdisciplinary research institutes. They have the enormous advantage of already containing a diverse population of disciplinary expertise. They can adopt an enormous variety of governance models for the structure of these institutes. They also have the agility and ability to wind down institutes and create new ones without having to fire and hire entire workforces.

Universities cannot solve every problem of interdisciplinary research, nor are standalone research institutes always the answer – indeed these institutional distinctions can be overplayed. What matters is the willingness to be agile, flexible and adventurous, not whether or not the starting point is inside or outside a university.

While disciplinary structures are a great place to train and acquire some accredited well-structured expertise in a professional domain, they can become rigid career tracks. That can be deeply unfortunate – I say that as someone who has worked across several disciplines in my own career.

Role models

One thing that would help would be the identification and promotion of more role models that demonstrate that a career as a ‘discipline hopper’ or an interdisciplinary researcher can be every bit as rewarding as a single-discipline career. Some wonderful role models are already available, such as a former president of the Royal Society, Lord May. I have lost track of how many careers he had as a researcher operating in different disciplines. If we find ways to celebrate them and, frankly, advertise them, that would help.

In summary, the answer does not always lie with the funding bodies. Institutional structures are important, but not always in the way we think. Simplistic categorisations like ‘Institutes good, universities bad’ are unhelpful. Finally, as with so many other things, a good role model goes a long way.