Interdisciplinary research is widely considered a hothouse for innovation, and the only plausible approach to complex problems such as climate change1,2. One barrier to interdisciplinary research is the widespread perception that interdisciplinary projects are less likely to be funded than those with a narrower focus3,4. However, this commonly held belief has been difficult to evaluate objectively, partly because of lack of a comparable, quantitative measure of degree of interdisciplinarity that can be applied to funding application data1. Here we compare the degree to which research proposals span disparate fields by using a biodiversity metric that captures the relative representation of different fields (balance) and their degree of difference (disparity). The Australian Research Council’s Discovery Programme provides an ideal test case, because a single annual nationwide competitive grants scheme covers fundamental research in all disciplines, including arts, humanities and sciences. Using data on all 18,476 proposals submitted to the scheme over 5 consecutive years, including successful and unsuccessful applications, we show that the greater the degree of interdisciplinarity, the lower the probability of being funded. The negative impact of interdisciplinarity is significant even when number of collaborators, primary research field and type of institution are taken into account. This is the first broad-scale quantitative assessment of success rates of interdisciplinary research proposals. The interdisciplinary distance metric allows efficient evaluation of trends in research funding, and could be used to identify proposals that require assessment strategies appropriate to interdisciplinary research5.
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We thank the Australian Research Council for providing de-identified application data for analysis, and for their commitment to transparency and improvement of research proposal assessment. We are grateful to A. Byrne for his feedback and encouragement. We also thank M. Jennions for feedback, and G. Bammer, J. Bennett and the participants of the workshop on Interdisciplinary Research: Evaluating and Rewarding High-Quality Projects held at the University of New South Wales in August 2015.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Reviewer Information Nature thanks L. Amaral, M. Helmus and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
Extended data figures and tables
a, Distribution of IDD scores for 18,476 proposals to the Australian Research Council Discovery Programme, pooled over 5 years (2010–2014). b, Null distribution of IDD scores generated by random sampling of Field of Research codes conditional on the observed frequencies of number of selected codes and percentage allocations.
See Extended Data Table 2 for the membership of research networks. The research-intensive Group of Eight (Go8) universities submit more proposals to the Australian Research Council Discovery Programme and have higher funding success rates, but the overall patterns of interdisciplinarity scores and success rates are similar across institutions.
This file contains Supplementary Methods and additional references. (PDF 605 kb)
The hierarchical structure of FOR codes as a dendrogram. (PDF 107 kb)
This file contains data on proposals submitted to ARC Discovery program 2010-2014. (XLSX 1175 kb)
This table contains results of the GLMM analyses. (PDF 205 kb)
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Bromham, L., Dinnage, R. & Hua, X. Interdisciplinary research has consistently lower funding success. Nature 534, 684–687 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature18315
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