Working together to address critical challenges

Ottoline Leyser

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser is Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and Regius Professor of Botany at the University of Cambridge. She has worked extensively in science policy, for example serving as Chair of the Royal Society’s Science Policy Expert Advisory Committee and as a member of the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Member of the Leopoldina and EMBO, and an International Member of the US National Academy of Sciences.


  • UKRI provides a connected framework for research in the UK
  • Research anchored in specific disciplines may need additional input from other disciplines
  • Challenge-led research is almost inevitably cross-disciplinary
  • The separation of research and innovation is a weakness in the UK system
  • We need a means of identifying and funding innovative projects that do not fit into traditional categories, neither anchored in any one discipline nor aiming to address a defined challenge.

The UK has an extraordinary track record in research and innovation, across disciplines and sectors. This breadth and depth, coupled with the UK’s small geographical size, provides an opportunity to move things forward quickly through creative coordination and agility. To capture this opportunity, we have to become better at interdisciplinarity. In this context, UKRI is a crucial national asset because it brings together the disciplinary Research Councils with Research England (which provides block grants to English universities in close collaboration with equivalent bodies in the Devolved Administrations) and Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency.

That joined-up system is exactly what is needed to support the interdisciplinarity in the context of really high-quality research and innovation. However, ‘interdisciplinarity’ as a concept is virtually impossible to define. As a result, it is even harder to measure in a robust way. Without a coherent definition, distinct types of interdisciplinarity get lumped together, despite having very different modes of operation that need to be considered. I would highlight three classes in particular.

The place where I have the most personal experience of interdisciplinary research is where the questions are absolutely core to a particular discipline. They are not interdisciplinary questions but in order to answer them information and insights from other disciplines are needed. In my case, I worked for many years computationally modelling plant developmental biology. I had to learn to talk with mathematicians and computational scientists, so that we could build the shared language needed to address the questions I was interested in. Fortunately, they were excited about those questions too. That kind of journey takes time and effort, but it is anchored in a specific discipline.

Challenge-led research is different. Solving some of the big climate change problems, for example, will definitely need inputs from multiple disciplines. So, people come together, bringing their independent disciplinary expertise with them. Here, everybody is looking at the same problem, whereas in the earlier example, people are looking at different problems, but mutually benefiting from talking to one another.

The final category is where people are practically inventing a whole new discipline or working at the boundary between disciplines. In this case, nobody is on their home ground but is doing something new and different. This is often difficult, as much because of the sense of difficulty people experience working in unchartered territory as the reality of the barriers which do exist.

When it comes to funding, people ask questions about how to bring together the right group of people with the right mindset to assess a proposal that is interdisciplinary. Then there is the issue of publication, both getting something published in the first place, or indeed looking for other related published outputs. The issue of publication is also linked to career progression in unhelpful ways.

Where does UKRI fit into this landscape? Its vision is to build an outstanding research and innovation system for the UK, that gives everyone the opportunity to contribute and from which everyone can benefit for a whole variety of reasons, enriching lives locally, nationally, and internationally.

The interdisciplinarity toolbox

There are a number of tools at our disposal. We can convene and catalyse, as well as invest. We need to collaborate widely in order to build this thriving, inclusive system that connects different parts together, leading to prosperity and public good. The changes we are making have to do with the very things which are at the heart of the interdisciplinarity debate.

We currently have a highly-competitive system. Science (and research in general) will always be competitive: there are more good ideas than money to fund them. Yet the ‘rules’ for winning are currently disproportionately focussed on quite narrow criteria. That is incredibly unhelpful in terms of silo creation, because it makes people conservative and locks them into very narrow paths. The separation of research from innovation is another key weakness that emerges from current incentives. UKRI also needs to build in more capability to withstand shocks and to ensure that it is not spreading the money so thinly that everyone is clinging on for dear life. At the same time, there must be sufficient flexibility to be able to pivot if things change dramatically – as in the pandemic.

To do this requires a fundamental rethink and a focus on portfolios of different types of things, with different risk profiles that cover a full range of goals that we want to achieve, connecting elements together and building the joined-up system that we need.

UKRI has adopted four principles for change. First, diversity: of people, places, ideas. This diversity is only valuable, though, with connectivity, the second principle. Without sufficient investment in connectivity, the system will not capture the benefits of diversity. Resilience, too, is essential. Yet all of this has to come with very deep engagement, particularly societal engagement, in order to break down the barriers between wider society and the research and innovation system.

These changes are crucial to solving the challenge of interdisciplinarity. Funding and publication issues create barriers linked to assessment and consequences for career progression. We have to change the focus to support diversity, with connectivity and the different contributions that people make to collaborative activity.

The focus is not just people with very traditional research careers, but also people who may have taken very unusual routes into research and innovation, into and out of academia, industry and policy. While we need people who focus on single topics, those who jump between disciplines, or who have taken career breaks, are equally important in generating the diverse teams of researchers that we need to tackle some of these problems.

At the moment, we are too fixated on particular success measures which lock people into narrow career paths and prevent the very diversity that we need.

UKRI has introduced a Resumé for Research and Innovation (R4RI). The traditional academic CV comprises a list of papers, grants and prizes while in the resumé a narrative statement can outline contributions to knowledge, to supporting other people (be they students or colleagues), as well as contributions to the wider research community through building connectivity. This captures better the full range of the qualities and activities that we are looking for.

Projects that address challenges in a multi-disciplinary way may not, however, even reach the funders’ attention because their originators have no idea where to send them. How do we ‘unearth’ these proposals and encourage researchers to submit them? Along with the different kinds of people we want, we need to be thinking explicitly about the fact that we are going to be funding different kinds of projects. It should be possible to develop a menu to guide the peer-review panels in how they rank proposals in a portfolio. That should be achievable with a well-devised, high-quality peer-review system.

These are some of the intersecting topics we are exploring with our communities and to which we hope to be able to apply creative solutions.