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QUEST: Capturing Lessons for Interdisciplinarity

Catherine Lyall   Ann Bruce   Wendy Marsden

Affiliated staff:   Laura Meagher

Funding: NERC

February 1 2010 – January 31 2011


There is increasing emphasis, nationally and internationally, on interdisciplinary research in order to tackle some of the world's most pressing environmental and social problems.  In the UK, we are witnessing a significant increase in planned funding for strategic interdisciplinary programmes but the lessons arising from such initiatives can be hard to capture and codify. 

QUEST (Quantifying and Understanding the Earth SysTem) is one of NERC’s flagship programmes for Earth system science.  As this programme approached its close, NERC took the opportunity to commission a study of the experiences of a number of large scale investments in order to advance understanding on the nature of interdisciplinarity in this area of global environmental change research in order to deliver practical benefits to the wider community and provide valuable guidance for future similar initiatives.

Aims and objectives

The project studied the nature of ‘deep’ interdisciplinarity; examined strategic and institutional aspects of interdisciplinarity (including barriers and enablers); and explored the relationship between interdisciplinarity and policy-oriented research. This project complements previous work advising the European Commission and UK Research and Funding Councils (e.g. Bruce et al., 2004; Lyall et al., 2011; Meagher and Lyall, 2005; 2007; 2009) on interdisciplinary community- and capacity-building.  The scope of NERC’s directed call enabled us to study interdisciplinarity across diverse research areas, including global-scale processes and international perspectives.

The research addressed two key objectives:

  • To develop multiple case studies in order to exploit insights from various sources including mechanisms and experiences of UK and international initiatives
  • To promote organisational learning and generate benefits broadly applicable across the long-term future of various UK efforts to tackle complex, multidimensional challenges in this sphere, by drawing transferable lessons of relevance to new programmes, and delivering guidance for future initiatives in a readily utilisable form

Research methods

The project adopted a mixed portfolio of methods to ensure that we captured qualitative insights along with quantifiable indicators where possible. These included:

  • document analysis of both academic literature on interdisciplinarity and grey literature, e.g. on structures and experiences of relevant UK and international programmes
  • semi-structured interviews
  • surveys (online)
  • focus groups/workshop
  • learning visits

The empirical research was structured around four case studies (QUEST, Relu, the Tyndall Centre and UKERC), each representing multi-million pound, multi-discipline and multi-centre investments by the UK Research Councils. These case studies were complemented by a fifth, comprising three comparative overviews with strong international perspectives: IHOPE, IGERT and CNH.


In order to maximise learning and the spread of project impacts, dissemination activities to date include:

  • An international Masterclass/workshop, focusing on the management and design of interdisciplinary programmes held in Edinburgh in January 2011
  • A report and briefing session for the Research Councils
  • Presentations at UK and international conferences including EASST (Trento Italy, Sept 2010); td-net (Geneva, Switzerland, Sept 2010) and the Royal Society (London , March 2011)
  • Accessible, practical guidance, in the form of online 'short guides' giving advice to funders, evaluators and leaders of interdisciplinary initiatives
  • A short Innogen policy brief summarising our key findings and recommendations
  • One or more peer-reviewed journal articles currently under review

Key findings

The outcomes from this research suggest practical enhancements to modes of collaborative working in future environmental (and other) initiatives and contribute to future research council investments by providing valuable organisational learning and transferable lessons to both the funders who frame, assess and manage interdisciplinary initiatives and the researchers who lead, conduct and generate impacts from them.

Our analysis of the lessons captured across this set of case studies led us to identify five key success factors for interdisciplinary programmes under the following headings:

  • Locus of interdisciplinarity: At what level does ID integration take place (individual researcher, project, programme, theme)?
  • Catalysis: Importance of ‘warm up’ activities
  • Visionary leadership: Who provides the intellectual leadership? (role of funders and programme directors)
  • Active management: How will integration be managed and by whom?
  • Learning and continuity: What provision is made for capacity building

Wider implications for policy

This study has provided an opportunity to advance understanding on the nature of interdisciplinarity in the area of global environmental change research, whilst delivering practical benefits to the environmental research community and providing valuable guidance for other future initiatives.


QUEST Final Report PDF, 1.2MB