Multi or interdisciplinary research is an idea whose time has come. Many of our societal challenges are deemed to demand multidisciplinary analyses and many research funders are keen to see such investments. That said, there are many who can testify to the difficulty in launching multi or interdisciplinary projects within a university focused on disciplinary domains.

We therefore sought out Anders Bäckström, professor emeritus in the sociology of religion, who was responsible for the development of what became the Centre for Multidisciplinary Research on Religion and Society (CRS Uppsala). He has just completed a historical research study of the organisation’s development between 1997 and 2019.

What’s so important about multidisciplinary research?
“A multidisciplinary approach is crucial to the ability to meet the social changes and complex societal challenges we are facing. For this reason, grant applications for projects and programmes benefit from a multidisciplinary perspective. This is particularly true of EU funding, although it also applies at national level.”

In your experience, what is the secret to success in multidisciplinary research?
“In my opinion, a long-term approach is essential to multidisciplinary research; it promotes research by creating a foundation on which to stand. No university can be best at everything but through long-term investment a university can become a world leader in a given field.

It is also important to bring different generations into the research process from the very beginning; i.e., pair senior excellent researchers with junior researchers who can take over and carry on the research. This is not an automatic process, it must be planned from the beginning. Recruiting junior researchers is also a good idea because they are not as bound to a disciplinary system as an established researcher might be.

A long-term approach is also useful for dealing with gender issues. When we applied for a Linnaeus grant in 2007, we had more men involved at all levels. Now that’s been turned on its head at CRS. Nor is that self-evident, it needs to be part of the model so that we eventually create at least some kind of gender balance.”

Do you see any general problems affecting multidisciplinary research at Uppsala University?
“When it comes to indefinite appointments, Uppsala University is discipline-oriented. This may be a problem when junior researchers who have devoted themselves to multi or interdisciplinary skills later apply for positions in competition with researchers more orientated towards a single disciplinary domain. There is therefore a need for more qualification paths to a senior lectureship, rather than just a discipline-dependent route.”

Can multidisciplinary research give anything back to disciplinary domains?
“Yes, it is not only valuable to the researcher, it can strengthen individual disciplines. Firstly, the researcher can become more aware in their own field of research and, secondly, it increases the researchers competence when it comes to writing programme applications and leading major projects/programmes. This competence is very important now that more and more calls prioritise multidisciplinarity and competition is growing fiercer.

Let us also bear in mind that, in this age of corona, it is in this multidisciplinary environment that opinions change and new ones grow.”