Lessons learned from interdisciplinary research leadership

January 11, 2018
Professor Richard Pancost

The University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute is an exemplar of interdisciplinary collaboration, bringing together researchers from across the arts and humanities, sciences and technologies to address global environmental challenges. We hear from its Director, Professor Richard Pancost, on the lessons he has learned from leading the institute, from the importance of building trust between academics, to the value of managing expectations and eschewing ‘checklist targets’.


Nine years ago, many of us at the University of Bristol set out to create a new kind of research institute, one that would draw together multiple disciplines to tackle society’s grand environmental challenges. It was supported from the ‘top’ of the University, with an ambition to foster cross-disciplinary research; but it was led from the ‘bottom’, by those already leading diverse themes while also recognising that something larger, bolder and more creative was necessary. Those conversations led to the launch of the Cabot Institute in 2010, the University of Bristol’s first (of four) University Research Institutes (URIs), of which I have been the Director since 2013.

At the time, both interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity were popular but contentious concepts.  Many organisations were pursuing them but perhaps without a robust intellectual justification or an understanding of their ultimate purpose.  This was particularly challenging because classical but constrained concepts of interdisciplinarity were being challenged as insufficiently ambitious. No longer was a collaboration between a chemist and physicist worthy of special recognition; the new and challenging aspiration was to join scientists, social scientists, engineers and cultural scholars.

At the same time, interdisciplinary research was being critiqued as too frequently treated as an end in and of itself by individuals, funders and organisations.  Instead, interdisciplinary methods, like any other, should be deployed only when they are appropriate to the challenge or question.  And when done so, they have great power, drawing together the different disciplines required to tackle grand challenges and co-producing energising new ideas. This was the rationale of Cabot – we could not tackle challenges like climate change within a single discipline or within academia alone; nor could we tackle climate change as an isolated challenge given its connection to social justice, energy policy and food production. This challenge-led motivation for interdisciplinarity – and more fundamentally the co-production of knowledge – is the inspiring force behind Cabot.

However, there is some risk that we have swung the pendulum too far towards the ‘problem-solving’ rationale for interdisciplinary research.  Just as applied research best thrives in an ecosystem that includes fundamental research, so do interdisciplinary endeavours.  The joy of such research and the benefit it brings is not simply new solutions but new ideas, new ways of thinking, even new disciplines. Many of these new ideas arise from the friction of interdisciplinary research and many arise from the new processes created to facilitate it. The intersection and clash of perspectives and different forms of knowing creates an environment in which new ideas can germinate and thrive. It does not always lead to new proposals, papers or solutions; instead, sometimes it infects its participants with new perspectives on their own research and new ways of interrogating old problems.

For example, Cabot now has extensive scholarship associated with the cultural understanding of natural hazards; some of that will help us mitigate risk but much of it more fundamentally helps us understand the human condition and how we conceptualise our relationship with nature. My own research on past climate has thrived within Cabot not because of how it has informed better climate model predictions but because it has allowed me to reframe conversations around uncertainty, decision and anticipation. This in turn has created new avenues for engaging with policy makers and our community.

Holding those competing intellectual values in tension, the Cabot Institute has experimented, facilitated and catalysed, with both successes and failures, the former often surprising and the latter sometimes predictable in hindsight.  And during that time, we’ve learned a great deal that elaborates on these themes of multi- and interdisciplinarity. Below I describe four values that I have found particularly important.

Bringing different disciplines together is intrinsically about bringing people together

Of Cabot’s many objectives, the first and most essential is to build new communities of scholars, within and beyond the University. These comprise both interdisciplinary efforts that genuinely sit in new intellectual spaces and multidisciplinary ones that represent a mosaic of classical disciplines. This ethos imposes a range of secondary considerations. The inter- and multidisciplinary thrives best when the disciplinary thrives as well; some of our greatest successes have emerged from strong disciplines coming together as multidisciplinary efforts that then give rise to a new interdisciplinary way of thinking.

Community building also requires a diverse form of support activity.  We can bring groups together to discuss a particular challenge, but we also need to bring people together in more creative and less prescribed frameworks.  The Cabot team needs to have 1-2-1s with our community, so that we are sufficiently informed to be match-makers.  And we all need funding to nurture these ideas, allowing them to thrive to sufficient maturity to attract external funding.

Moreover, a truly intellectually diverse multi-disciplinary environment is one that it is not limited to academics. Cabot has thrived via strong partnerships across the city, UK and world, supported by the traditional mechanisms (a brilliant External Advisory Board chaired by Chris Curling, then Sir John Beddington and currently Dame Julia Slingo; secondments into the Government Office of Science; partnerships with Rothamsted Research and the Met Office) but also creative collaborations that have created the space for our esteemed University to be more humble and learn from the brilliant civil society organisations and incredible individuals in Bristol.

Of course, we have also been opportunistic, using Bristol’s year as the European Green Capital to host events and support others, prominently putting our ethos of equal and collaborative partnership on display.  This has led to participation in the Festival of the Future City, co-sponsorship of the Coleridge Lectures, partnership in inspiring Arts Projects,  the Green and Black Ambassadors, and support for our City on the world stage at COP21 – all as equal partners, respecting and valuing the diversity of perspectives and wisdom in our city.

When we have drifted from those values is when we have failed. One of our initiatives was to create a ‘Corporate Club’, VENTURE, in which corporate partners, via a subscription, would fund staff, who in turn would help build collaborations and develop research projects. It was a legitimate effort towards co-production, based on shared resourcing. However, trying to procure funding from our partners undermined the message of collaboration, partnership and support.  Would we not provide the same service to those who did not join?  Would we not support those organisations with fewer resources?  Of course we would. Partnership was not just a way of working but a Cabot value. VENTURE could work for other organisations, but for Cabot it revealed itself to be inconsistent with our core mission. It is to the credit of our partners that this dialogue, through shared learning and deeper respect, led to stronger relationships – even if VENTURE failed.

The value (or not) of having a research theme

The Cabot community has resisted calls to be the Institute of the ‘environment’ or ‘climate change’ or ‘sustainability’ or ‘risk’ or all of the above. As soon as one of those words is imposed, it would begin to define and constrain our purpose. And Cabot was created to disrupt silos not to create a new one. We would not have been able to engage in a rich dialogue with our city around social justice, co-create the Green and Black Ambassadors, support smart city initiatives, sponsor the International Conference on Anticipation, or explore the challenge of food security if we had an overly constrained remit.  Associated with this, we view our membership and partnership as permeable, with nearly 1000 academics and other colleagues engaging with us over the years, more or less, off and on, depending on the opportunities, challenges and potential for creativity.

On the other hand, it is essential to have some broad thematic focus.  There is already an entity that should support all multi- and interdisciplinary research – it is called the 21st century University.  Therefore, Cabot’s value arises from having a loose thematic remit that provides some guidance of what colleagues and partners can expect us to offer, who they might meet at a Cabot event, what we might be prepared to profile.  Moreover, having some common themes, such as low carbon energy, food security and environmental change, allows us to build added value, partnerships and communities as our projects accumulate and diversify. Of course, we can never fully anticipate where such dynamic and creative conversations might take us – and that is part of the fun!

Embedding collaboration and community in interdisciplinary research  

One of the great pleasures of Cabot has been not only drawing in new ideas from our academics and partners but also our professional services. Breaking down silos is not limited to the silos that exist between Schools or disciplines: we all live in a world of structural and administrative silos. And building bridges between them reveals great pools of experience and knowledge. Our estates team is a world leader in sustainability and has fostered new discussions around everything from district heating and sustainable procurement to the carbon footprint of our research. Collaboration with our Press Office led to the creation of the Press Gang, in which we train postgraduate students keen on developing their communication skills and connect them to partners; in return they help us produce blogs and press releases.  A partnership with our Centre for Public Engagement led to the Engaged MSc Research projects, which connect postgraduate researchers with external organisations who have a wealth of ideas but limited resource.

Crucially, this fosters not just the creation of new research directions but new ways of working, new ways to support and enable the academic community, and new learning experiences. We have brought in external provocateurs, run sandpits, workshops, mingles, and all the activities one might expect.  But we have also fostered conversation through curated peer-to-peer learning.  We have worked with artists – who have served as collaborators, facilitators and enablers. We have connected UGs to academics, PGRs to community organisations, citizens to councillors, academics to MPs. We have run conferences and curated discussions on behalf of city partners.  And all of that has been fostered by an ethos of partnership and learning, and fuelled by permission – or perhaps more accurately, a mandate – to try new things.

Metrics: managing expectations

Cabot’s budget is small but powerful given that our mission is not to deliver but to be catalytic. But more important is the conditionality of that funding. We are not assessed against a checklist of targets or how much of a specific activity we deliver – how many workshops we have organised or events we have hosted. Instead, we are assessed against a more challenging but vital target – how we have added something new to our research or teaching portfolio. This permissiveness is the foundation for experimentation and creativity.  It is the foundation of collaboration rather than competition. And therefore, it creates the environment in which new ideas can thrive. These new ways of working might or might not solve climate change or any other grand challenge; however, a diversity of new ideas inspired by a diversity of perspectives, whether from Bristol, GW4 partners or others, likely will.  As such, Cabot’s ambitions transcends our initial ambition to facilitate problem-driven interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary research; we aspire to create an environment where we challenge one another to think, learn and conduct research in exciting new ways.

These perspectives do not represent the only approach – and certainly not the only rationale.  My comments have arisen from the many who are part of the Cabot community. And not all of them would agree with what I’ve written or omitted. For example, I see no need for a physical space and in fact view it as a threat to creativity and adaptability; others would have good reasons to disagree. As such, these observations are not meant to be lessons but rather provocations; and as such, I hope they help catalyse the conversations of others pursuing similar initiatives – even if they make different choices.

Richard Pancost is the Director of the Cabot Institute and Professor of Biogeochemistry at the University of Bristol.