How to Successfully Develop and Lead Interdisciplinary Research Teams


Interdisciplinary research is growing in popularity and is increasingly seen as essential. Multiple perspectives on research challenges often lead to better results. For example, in the recent BBC Reith Lectures on AI, it was proposed that “every functioning AI center should have a resident philosopher or ethicist on board to prick the consciences or at least remind people that it is important”.

An obvious common challenge of interdisciplinary research, however, is that one is not just breaking boundaries in terms of creating new knowledge, but creating (or at least merging) research methodologies. This departure from our “methodology comfort zone” creates tensions and can lead to risks for staff careers and the reputation of the service.

Additionally, different values ​​and language create barriers to successful collaboration and overall group cohesion. Given the above, how can we successfully establish and lead interdisciplinary research teams?

A culture of seeking openness and fluidity

Culture is vital. It is important that the dominant culture be open and egalitarian, allowing researchers to cross research fields, methodologies or communities without fear of failure. The means to create this is to remove as much unnecessary formal structure and processes as possible.

Management should take an anti-structure, anti-committee approach that allows researchers to bond and coalesce bottom-up through common interests. This means minimizing the extent to which organizational roles are considered and reducing or eliminating hierarchical line management structures.

Task-oriented teams are the main structure to adopt – bringing together individuals who can contribute to a research artifact, whether they are academics, doctoral students, laboratory technicians, software developers or professional service personnel.

Within a team, all members should be willing to work on all tasks as time and capacity permit. This “team not role” perspective should permeate all areas. My lab even has a refrigerator cleaning rotation that all staff are supposed to participate in (when we’re not in a pandemic).

Another important aspect of culture is to foster individual freedom. Researchers should be free to pursue any area of ​​research they deem worthwhile by any means. Resources should be accessible with few barriers. We have found that nothing reduces efficiency and motivation more than having to go through internal bidding processes. Especially when available funds are low. In my lab, our view is, whenever possible, to simply say “yes” to every request we receive.

This approach comes with the following constraints and responsibilities:

Workforce: Agility and minimal structure and process attributes limit the size of the research unit. From our experience, we estimate that a total of 80 staff – all staff and PhD students – is about the limit. Beyond that, there is a loss of personal connectivity where culture and trust are harder to maintain.

Definition of research objectives: The primary objective of research staff is to “make an impact” either on academia or on society at large. However, care must be taken in how the objectives are measured. We use what we call the “Sistine Chapel” KPI: periodically, a significant impact must be generated. Micro-metrics can harm a culture when staff begin to view their relationship with the research unit as transactional and something to be played around with.

A shared mission: A unifying totem is the final element of culture that we believe is important for success. All staff must agree at some level on a common epistemological point of view. For example, we take the core mission of the Open University around fairness and openness and add technological innovation to it. All of our research is therefore broadly aimed at bringing good to society through technology, and we expect and encourage our people to be early adopters of technology.

Recruit and retain research talent

Successful researchers tend to be highly motivated and highly skilled. In a multidisciplinary context, it is important that all staff also have an open attitude and are thus able to engage with new research frameworks and new disciplinary semantic and value systems.

Finding candidates who align strongly with the unit’s overarching values ​​and totems is crucial. Over the years, we have developed a hiring strategy that focuses on the best places to advertise, the networks to use, and the best way to showcase what we offer.

Talent retention is a topic constantly explored and discussed by senior executives in my lab. Interdisciplinary researchers will often be in high demand and, in some sectors, may command much higher salaries in industry.

In addition to the cultural elements described above, our staff retention strategy is based on:

Take Career Development Seriously: Often overlooked in busy research environments, by senior and junior staff, it is important that all staff have clear career paths and that these are supported. Support will include:

  • intensive mentoring on areas that need development, e.g. acquiring funding
  • understand barriers at the level of the individual (eg lack of skills), unit (eg biased judgments) and organization (eg questioning HR policies)
  • ensure that all academic staff have an “academic home” in which they can grow as their stature increases.

Proactively understand and fight for all staff needs: A key duty for all line managers and especially the research team leader is to listen to staff and engage with all other areas to create the best possible working environment. Typical areas we’ve discussed recently have covered: visas, working during a pandemic with sick dependents who live outside the UK and support staff wanting to engage with the wider community.

We are lucky that the Open University is a serious listener. Any serious concerns we raise are either quickly resolved or led to a dialogue with the executive of the institution. This has allowed us to create an interdisciplinary research environment that is highly valued externally and where staff in all roles have overwhelmingly reported positive feelings about the working environment. I can personally say that this combination is richly rewarding.

John Domingue is director of the Knowledge Media Institute at the open university


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