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Important but not easy: interdisciplinary research

In the academic world interest in interdisciplinary research is growing. It can help to solve the big challenges of our times. But starting a research project that covers several disciplines is not always easy. This was one of the conclusions at a Young Academy Leiden (YAL) symposium. What are the challenges?

Interdisciplinary research means going beyond the limits of your own discipline or field of interest. Researchers from different fields integrate their knowledge and expertise. This can help solve the big challenges of our times: climate change, for instance, or the loss of biodiversity or how artificial and human intelligence can work together.


Various speakers at the symposium explained how it is not always easy to start interdisciplinary research. This was confirmed by the questions asked by the young researchers in the room. First, it can take a long time for people from different research fields to understand one another properly. Rector Magnificus Hester Bijl said how it had taken her a day to discover that a certain concept had a completely different name in another discipline and was explained and illustrated in a different way. Second, young researchers have little time for interdisciplinary research because they are still busy making their name in their own field. Third, it is difficult to obtain funding. Reviewers don’t always think beyond the limits of an academic discipline, which means they reject research proposals because they don’t completely fit within a certain area.

Knowledge centre

These are all issues that will take some time to solve, but they are at least receiving more attention. Peter-Paul Verbeek (from the board of the Dutch Research Council (NWO) Social Sciences and Humanities domain)) noted at the symposium that NWO wants to gain a better understanding of interdisciplinary research and to promote it. NWO is therefore starting a knowledge centre that will look at which indicators mean a project will be successful, which guidelines to give to reviewers and what it means if you enter into partnerships outside of the academic world.

Interdisciplinary programmes

Leiden University’s eight interdisciplinary programmes aim to remove many of the obstacles to interdisciplinary research and to promote it. These cover topics such as changing policy to make a sustainable world, creating a safer and more resilient society and analysing data to improve health care. Hester Bijl is enthusiastic: ‘We can already see that people are finding one another, but we can also see a need for bottom-up initiatives. That’s why it’s important to have a platform for this, and YAL is a good example.’

Tips for interdisciplinary research

Hester Bijl and Eveline Crone (psychology professor and Vice-President of the European Research Council) share some tips for anyone wishing to start and fund interdisciplinary research.

  • Go to an event on a topic (just) outside your discipline.
  • Talk to others who have experience of interdisciplinary research and submitting research proposals.
  • Believe in your dream and never give up! If your research proposal is rejected, keep perfecting it and submit it again.
  • Fight back! If your application is rejected, send a strong response explaining why your research deserves funding.
  • Be creative. If you are not awarded a scholarship or grant, see what funding is available at the University. Or seek other funding.
  • Work with people you like.

Text: Dagmar Aarts
Photo: Monique Shaw

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