Panel 137 - Not a Palaver! How Can Interdisciplinary, Intersectoral and International Collaboration be Successful?

Conference Day: 
Day 1 - November 13th 2019
Takeaways and recommendations: 

Not a Palaver! How Can Interdisciplinary, Intersectoral and International Collaboration be Successful?

Organized by: UK Research and Innovation North America 

Speakers: Melanie Welham, Executive Chair, UKRI Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council; Joy Johnson, Vice-President Research and International, and Professor Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University; Ted Hewitt, President, Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada; Chair of the Canada Research Coordinating Committee; John Laughlin, Chief Technology Officer, Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen)

Moderator: Jean Lebel, President, International Development Research Centre


  1. Requirements to collaborate across disciplines, sectors or borders can be built into the design of research programs. 

  2. Challenge programs can be effective at bringing diverse disciplines and sectors together to focus on a common issue.

  3. Collaborative programs need to be well designed and evaluated.

  4. All partners need to realize benefits from the research. 

  5. There are clear benefits to interdisciplinary, intersectoral and international research (e.g., more highly cited and impactful publications), especially when addressing complex challenges. Where research is lacking is in how to evaluate interdisciplinary research.

  6. There is a need to collaborate more with researchers from the global south, especially in addressing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

  7. Companies that compete against each other can be encouraged to partner using new collaborative models (e.g., open innovation). 

  8. Universities need to create opportunities for researchers from different disciplines to interact with each other and with potential partners outside of academia.

  9. Universities need to continue to identify ways to recognize and reward researchers who engage in collaborative research. 

  10. International faculty and student exchanges build new linkages that can lead to new research collaborations.


How Canada and the UK are driving new models in collaborative research

International research collaborations that involve multiple scientific disciplines and multiple sectors are essential for tackling the complex challenges faced by industry and society. But those collaborations don’t happen by accident. Increasingly, as CSPC delegates heard, they require dedicated funding and other mechanisms to create meaningful partnerships that deliver results.

“Working across disciplines brings new approaches, new perspectives and new ways of looking at old problems and we increasingly see working across disciplines as being the way to push back those frontiers,” said Melanie Welham, Executive Chair, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. 

Encouraging collaborations may require research funders to break down organizational as well as disciplinary silos. For example, in 2017 the federal government established the Canada Research Coordinating Committee – a new mechanism that allows the primary funders of academic research to launch joint initiatives that have interdisciplinarity built into the design. 

“When we designed the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) we were looking to promote development of new funding opportunities that didn’t mirror the granting councils’ opportunities,” said Ted Hewitt, President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, adding. “We want to attract proposals that bring together disciplines and diverse teams of researchers who would not normally work together.”

The first competition from that fund supported high-risk, high-reward interdisciplinary research. The second competition will provide large-scale support (up to $24 million over six years) for interdisciplinary research that is also transformative. 

“Instead of setting priorities and deciding these are the things we want to get at or these are the government priorities, we said ‘no, you determine what challenges are, you convince us of the nature of the challenge and then you tell us how you will deal with these in ways that are different or that nobody else could get at,” said Hewitt.

Joy Johnson, Vice-President Research at Simon Fraser University, applauded programs like NFRF which require researchers to organize themselves in new ways. “I’m a big believer in carrots, in finding ways to encourage these types of affiliations to take place … having some glue or stickiness for teams to come together can be very positive.”

At the same time, Johnson said there needs to be a way for research funders to determine if these partnerships are effective and delivering results. “We need research on how we do that evaluation and how we measure the impacts.”

Universities also have their challenges. While interdisciplinary collaborations are becoming more common, Johnson explained that there are still structural barriers to overcome. For example, the historical preference for discipline-based faculties means that “universities are not purpose-built for interdisciplinary research”, she said.

Johnson added that universities need to find ways to “set the table, to find ways for people to come together, to meet one another and to think about what the opportunities are … Doing that also helps us with collaborating in a larger way with our community partners.”


The UK experience

The UK has also taken steps to encourage more research collaborations. The creation of UKRI in 2018 brought together the seven Research Councils, spanning all the different research disciplines, as well as Innovate UK and Research England. “UKRI is enabling us to think differently on how to support interdisciplinary research to push back those boundaries,” said Welham.

One UKRI program, the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, funds collaborations between industry and research organizations to solve specific challenges, such as accelerating detection of disease, commercializing quantum and industrial decarbonization.

The idea for such challenges often come from companies looking for solutions, said John Laughlin, Chief Technology Officer of the Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen) supercluster, which aims to create 13,500 jobs and boosts Canada’s GDP by $13.5 billion.

Laughlin joined NGen from the U.K. where he was responsible for running some of that government’s highest profile R&D programs. These included the Automotive Low Carbon Vehicle R&D program and the UK’s Aerospace program. 

However, Laughlin cautioned against making the challenges too complex or forcing collaborations that don’t make sense. “Then you are in danger of imbalancing the opportunity to get true innovation, so the design of these challenges is important.”

Hewitt said SSHRC’s Partnership Development Grants avoid this pitfall by having researchers design both the challenge and the solution. “Then we test that based on what the partners of the researchers – who are intended to be the beneficiaries –achieve.”

Challenges in industry

For a growing number of industry sectors, interdisciplinary and intersectoral research has become a competitive imperative. Laughlin pointed to the manufacturing industry which just a decade ago had most of their capabilities under one roof. 

“Today you need sensor data and cloud services, software, data analytics, advanced mechatronics – all these new disciplines don’t exist in one organization or under one manufacturing  roof. You need collaboration to overcome some of the challenges of next generation manufacturing,” he told delegates.

For example, an NGen project led by Toronto start-up iVexSol Canada is developing an advanced manufacturing process for therapeutic lentiviral vectors that will radically reduce the cost and time to produce cell and gene therapies for late-stage cancer and rare diseases. 

“That’s a breakthrough of different disciplines working together to solve a problem using manufacturing technology,” said Laughlin. 

Partnering with the global south

Another UKRI initiative – the Global Challenges Research Fund – takes a unique approach to supporting collaborations with researchers in developing countries. The fund’s £1.5 billion, four-year research budget is part of the UK’s international aid budget. 

“There are not just global problems in the south, but they also feedback and benefit the north as well,” said Welham. “It’s really important that we understand that there is a flow of benefits in all directions.”

Too often researchers from the global south are not partners in projects that have a direct impact on them. For example, 85% of the world’s refugees are in the global south, yet more than 85% of the research on refugees and forced migration originates from scholars in the global north, noted moderator Jean Lebel, President, International Development Research Centre.

“If we are to attain the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals we (research funders) must be working effectively in fragile contexts,” said Lebel. “The need for research and research capacity in these spaces is acute.”

Lebel added that governments need to recognize the value of international collaborations, even when national interests are sometimes at odds with international interests. 

Fortunately, added Welham, there is “really good evidence” demonstrating the benefits of international collaboration. For example, publications that arise from international collaborations are more highly cited and more impactful. 

Funding to support international collaborations is important, but Johnson said other mechanisms are needed, including student and faculty exchanges in both academia and industry.

“Building strong and robust international collaborations starts with relationships,” said Johnson. “We have to think about all those bridges we can build.”