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Funding: The price of interdisciplinary research


June 30, 2016

Research projects with a greater degree of interdisciplinarity face a lower probability of being funded, finds a study published in this week’s Nature.

Although interdisciplinary research is generally regarded as a fertile ground for innovation - and therefore often encouraged at policy level - there is a widespread perception that interdisciplinary research is less likely to be rewarded by funding bodies than research with a narrow subject focus. However, this perception has not been systematically tested on a broad scale.

Lindell Bromham and colleagues examined grant data associated with 18,476 research proposals - including disciplines within the arts, humanities and sciences - submitted to the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Programme between 2010 and 2014. The authors use these data to develop a metric they call ‘interdisciplinary distance’ (IDD) that captures the relative representation of different fields and the degree of difference between them. They find that higher IDD is consistently negatively correlated with funding success and that this result is independent of year of application, number of research fields in the proposal and primary research field.

The authors speculate that the lower funding success rates of interdisciplinary projects may be due to proposals being assessed by reviewers who are ill-equipped to evaluate all parts of the project. In addition, the average quality of interdisciplinary proposals may not be as high as that of more narrowly focused research, when evaluated with the same measures of success. This finding provides the basis for further investigation into the development and evaluation of interdisciplinary research.

doi: 10.1038/nature18315

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