9. The dilemmas of multidisciplinary work

Case

9.1: Multidisciplinary projects and varying assessment criteria
9.2: Additional time spent because of fragmented supervisor responsibility
9.3: Supervisor responsibility and conflicts of interest in multidisciplinary projects
9.4: Multidisciplinary projects

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9.1: Multidisciplinary projects and varying assessment criteria
A multidisciplinary project was anchored in three academic communities: social anthropology, history and medicine. When a committee was to be appointed to assess the thesis from the project, no one was satisfied, because only the formal criteria for the composition of the committee (inclusion of a woman and a person from outside Norway) were taken into account. The candidate's original academic background was not represented in the committee. The outcome was that the thesis was rejected. The candidate did not have the opportunity to submit comments unless they concerned disqualification, which was not a problem in this case.

Questions: How should one ensure a suitable academic composition of committees in multidisciplinary projects, and how can one resolve disagreement among the disciplines regarding the assessment criteria?

General comment: Both here and in several other cases, we have seen that interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary projects are a major challenge for NTNU, not least with regard to research ethics. In this case, the problem was to establish a committee with a composition that was appropriate for the combination of disciplines involved. Varying assessment criteria and disagreement between the disciplines adversely affected the candidate in this case. It might have helped if the committee members had had greater insight into the various criteria. But a commitment of this nature cannot be optional; it must be stipulated in guidelines if it is to have any binding effect.

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Case 9.2: Additional time spent because of fragmented supervisor responsibility
A PhD candidate in a multidisciplinary project had supervisors from several faculties: The Faculty of Information Technology, Mathematics and Electrical Engineering (IME), the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Technology (NT), and the Faculty of Medicine (DMF). The project dragged on and the PhD candidate needed advice from a supervisor about how the situation should be handled. As several faculties shared the supervisor responsibility, it was not clear whom she should approach.

Questions: How should one solve the problems associated with the extra time required because of linkages to several faculties and divided supervisor responsibility?

General comment: We do not know the extent of the problems related to increased time requirements, but there are strong indications that this is a factor that is more critical in multidisciplinary than in single-discipline projects. A great deal of important research at NTNU depends on collaboration between different faculties. At the same time, there are many examples suggesting that the organization is not geared to this situation. It is important to follow up this challenge for several reasons: It is important for the individual PhD candidate, and it is equally important for NTNU as an organization. Interdisciplinarity is an important advantage that gives us opportunities to profile ourselves.

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Case 9.3: Supervisor responsibility and conflicts of interest in multidisciplinary projects
A strategic area focused on a particular topic announces a grant internally within the faculty. The PhD position is announced and handled through one faculty, then sent to another for the appointment process. The PhD candidate has problems with the direction of the project. Part of the problem is that the supervisor is not aware of the constraints for the project and accepts a shift in its focus. In the worst case, the party funding the project may withdraw its support.

Questions: What is the essence of the problem, and how can the situation be improved?

General comment: This is an example of unclear communication, lack of openness, and inadequate handling of conflicts of interest and supervisor responsibility. Like the previous case, this reflects the vulnerabilities involved in managing multidisciplinary projects. Perhaps we need to seek out the good examples of collaborative projects and look more closely at potential transfer value. Some success factors undoubtedly relate to good personal chemistry, but even more involve effective and good organization. The good examples deserve greater visibility.

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Case 9.4: Multidisciplinary projects
Many projects involve collaboration between medical and technological disciplines. However, there is great divergence in the norms for publication in the subject areas of these two faculties. For example, in technological disciplines there is no strong tradition of listing the supervisor as the last author of the articles in the thesis. This is in contrast to medical disciplines, where the position of last author is associated with greater merit than that of the second or third author in a long list. In multidisciplinary projects, this leads to problems of assessment, which in turn may impede multidisciplinarity.

Questions: How can NTNU solve the problem of multidisciplinary initiatives and projects that do not fit in with the line structure in organizational terms? This applies to everything from contracts, supervision, and assessment of professor competence to publication and recognition of merit (supervisor/PhD candidate, multidisciplinary projects, publication, conflicts of interest)

General comment: Here, the basic dilemma can be formulated as follows: The PhD candidate cannot be out of line with the convention, and is simultaneously forced into a line that counters the multidisciplinary approach.