Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Wide Research, Narrow Effects: Why Interdisciplinary Research – and Innovation – is Hard

Interdisciplinary research is seen as very valuable for society and economy. Some of that could be hype, but there are some good examples of what it can do. You have probably noticed that oil is no longer 100 dollar per barrel, and the US is no longer a big importer. This is a result of fracking, a result of interdisciplinary research. And if you don’t like fracking, a good alternative is photovoltaic energy, which comes from the sun, and from interdisciplinary research.

So some interdisciplinary research has been good for society. Is it also good for the scientists who are supposed to do it? The answer to this question is very interesting, and is reported in an article in Administrative Science Quarterly by Erin Leahey, Christine Beckman, and Taryn Stanko. The start is easy to explain: interdisciplinary research is less productive, but it gets more attention. The answer got more complicated, and more interesting, when they started looking at why that happened. 

The first step was to look at whether interdisciplinary research is more difficult to do, or whether it is because it is harder for it to gain acceptance and get published. The answer is clear: it is not harder to gain acceptance, but it is harder to do, especially early on. The second step was to look at why this research got more attention. Here many factors played a role, but one stood out to me: Actually what increases especially much is the variation in how much attention interdisciplinary research gets, and that helps explain the increased average. So interdisciplinary research is related to fracking in one more way – few reap the awards from it.

This paper doesn’t really result in career advice for scientists, because everyone will be interested in different kinds of research, and have different ideas on how much risk to take on. But has important insights on how innovations are made. Building on closely related ideas is much easier to do, so no wonder much of what scientists – and companies – do is incremental. And this is true even though we often tell stories of the great successes of interdisciplinary research and integrative innovations, while forgetting all those who tried and didn’t succeed. Whether that means we cross-fertilize knowledge too little, too much, or just enough is hard to tell.


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