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Interdisciplinarity offers ‘golden opportunities’ but not without big changes

How should we organise interdisciplinary work within Leiden University? This was the key question at a symposium organised by the Liveable Planet interdisciplinary research programme. Radical ideas, like getting rid of the faculties, came up for discussion.

Important societal issues cannot be resolved within just one scientific discipline; this calls for collaboration among different scientific fields and stakeholders. But interdisciplinary partnerships within a university that has a strong monodisciplinary structure is no easy matter. Researchers working in one programme can find it difficult to set up collaborative projects with other researchers outside the walls of their ‘own’ faculty. Or conversely: multidisciplinary researchers are located within several faculties, and as a result lack a clear home base.

Wim van den Doel and Jasper Knoester during the panel discussion.

‘Organise interdisciplinary work around teaching’

High time to discuss the best way to organise interdisciplinary work within the University, was the conclusion of the Liveable Planet research programme. Some 60 researchers from all faculties came together on Tuesday 7 February to have that discussion. Education historian Pieter Slaman fuelled the discussion with an account of the development of interdisciplinary work within the University since the First World War. He also gave some practical advice, including the suggestion of organising interdisciplinary work around teaching, and then preferably the BA or MA programmes. His reason: teaching is a stable, continuing starting point for cooperation. Karin Horsman, Director of Strategy and Academic Affairs, said that a lot is going on in the outside world in the area of promoting interdisciplinary research, particularly from the demand and funding side. She ended by calling for a good balance to be struck between curiosity-driven and applied research. During a panel discussion with Wim van den Doel (Dean of Leiden-Delft-Erasmus) and Jasper Knoester (Dean of the Faculty of Science), the comment was made that to promote interdisciplinarity, there needs to be greater alignment between the overall University strategy and the objectives of the different faculties.

‘Add an extra horizontal layer’

Three sub-sessions addressed various aspects of interdisciplinary work. First, is it really the case that science has to solve societal problems? Or should science only be driven by curiosity? The main thing that emerged from these discussions is that researchers have to be given the space within the University to carry out both kinds of research, and that funding has to be made available for both ‘types’ of research. A second sub-session looked at whether there is a willingness to consider a new framework for interdisciplinary work in Leiden. A starting point for the discussion was the rather provocative proposition that the faculty structure should be abandoned: an idea that was not immediately swept off the table. The participants concluded that it might be an idea to add an extra horizontal layer to the University’s organisational structure to create a better link with the ‘vertical’ structure of the faculties, and that there need to be physical places where researchers from all disciplines can work together. Budgets and recognition and rewards were also discussed. The conclusion was that the whole system of organisational structure, recognition and funding has to be re-examined. A third session focused on bringing young researchers together in an interdisciplinary network. This last session spawned a new initiative: the establishment of Young Liveable Planet, a network for young Leiden PhDs and postdocs engaged in research in the field of sustainability.

Interdisciplinarity offers ‘golden opportunities’: everyone agreed on that. But there is still a lot of work to be done, and direction is needed from higher up in the organisation. There are a number of items on the wish list: good (physical) facilities and a system that rewards interdisciplinary research.  To be continued.

What did individual participants take away from the meeting? Watch their reactions below:

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