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Interdisciplinary research has consistently lower funding success

Nature volume 534, pages 684687 (30 June 2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

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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Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Research School of Biology, Australian National University, 116 Daley Road, Canberra 0200, Australia

    • Lindell Bromham
    • , Russell Dinnage
    •  & Xia Hua

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Contributions

All authors contributed equally to this work. L.B. conceived the project and wrote the paper; R.D. and X.H. designed, conducted and interpreted the analyses.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lindell Bromham.

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

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Methods and additional references.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Figure 1

    The hierarchical structure of FOR codes as a dendrogram.

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Table 2

    This table contains results of the GLMM analyses.

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Table 1

    This file contains data on proposals submitted to ARC Discovery program 2010-2014.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature18315

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