Universities’ commitment to interdisciplinary research: To what end?

Erin Leahey, Sondra N. Barringer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


In recent decades, research universities have been engaged in fostering interdisciplinary research (IDR) in an attempt to support high-impact research that can benefit not only the greater good, but also their bottom line. A common way to enhance “interdisciplinary momentum” and foster IDR is to alter the organizational structure and its basic units: departments and centers. What are the consequences of such structural changes? In short, we do not know. To date there has been no large-scale quantitative assessment of whether and how universities’ commitments to interdisciplinary research are successful in fostering interdisciplinary research. To address this gap within the literature, we collect a wealth of numeric and textual data on 156 research universities nationwide to assess whether structural commitments to IDR influence general research activity (e.g., publications, external grants) as well as interdisciplinary research activity. Our results suggest that structural commitment to IDR does indeed produce some of its intended effects. We found that universities’ commitment to IDR, as manifested in their organizational structure (i.e., the number and interdisciplinary nature of key research units: departments and centers), spurs both scholarly research and NIH grant activity in general, and interdisciplinary research and NIH grant activity in particular. These results suggest that efforts to develop and reorganize academic units are not futile; rather, when value commitments are made tangible via foundational research units like departments and centers, they can have their intended consequences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number103910
JournalResearch Policy
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2020


  • Departments
  • Grant funding
  • Interdisciplinarity
  • Productivity
  • Research centers
  • Research universities

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Strategy and Management
  • Management Science and Operations Research
  • Management of Technology and Innovation


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