A disciplined approach to disciplines

by Alex Hulkes

If you were to guess what proportion of the ESRC portfolio reflected thinking from, or somehow related to, more than one discipline, what figure would you come up with?

We tried this experiment in ESRC, and came up with a figure of around 60%, but that was based on gut feel. Happily, ‘gut feel’ isn’t the basis for our decision making. Neither are dowsing or entrail reading, and someone has lost the corporate copy of the I Ching.

We can do better, and our latest analysis (PDF) uses ESRC grants data to come up with a more robust answer. And that answer is more like 70%.

Around 70% of the projects we fund cannot be described with reference to just a single discipline. Whether this means that they are multi-, trans-, cross or inter-disciplinary is a different question. But they are not single discipline, and nor is most of our spending.

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Interestingly, it also turns out that most of the funding we provide that supports cross-council work was awarded without any specific intention of supporting cross-council work. Delving into the figures we find that about 10% of our budget is expressly cross-council: awarded to grants in cross-council calls, or through sharing resources in responsive mode for example. But there’s another 25% that happens quite naturally.

This interpretation of the figures assumes of course that projects do what they said they would do and that the data are otherwise reliable, but in light of the UKRI objective to “ensure better prioritisation of resources, especially for the best interdisciplinary and cross-cutting research” it’s good news. Our processes have been identifying and supporting that kind of work quite successfully for some time.

That is not to say that all is rosy or that we can stop trying. It’s unlikely that every aspect of multidisciplinary behaviour will be quite as encouraging, all data has the potential to contain hidden surprises, and of course things can change if behaviour or external factors change.

The positive outcome comes only with a great deal of effort, on which we can and will continue to build. But in the meantime applicants can feel confident in continuing to create multidisciplinary projects.


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Alex Hulkes is Strategic Lead for Insights at the ESRC, and is responsible for developing our ability to evaluate and carry out data-informed analysis of ESRC investments, policy and operation.

If you have any questions or comments please email alex.hulkes@esrc.ac.uk

Visit the ESRC website for further details on our performance data, including demand management and grant processing.

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