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Evaluating interdisciplinary science — reflections based on the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education´s evaluations 2001-2005

The main focus of this report is how interdisciplinary issues have been dealt with in the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education´s subject and programme evaluations. It came about because a block of interdisciplinary programmes were evaluated by the National Agency in 2006. The report is in three parts. First, the term interdisciplinary science is discussed based on existing literature in the area. The second part is an analysis of strategies for and organisation of interdisciplinary science at selected Swedish higher education institutions, and the third part deals with the National Agency´s own subject and programme evaluations. In the concluding section, consequences for the National Agency´s evaluations are discussed. The focus is on definitions and meanings of interdisciplinary science and related terms, including multi-science, discipline and subject.

The empirical part of the report shows interesting results. One observation is that institutions´ use of the term interdisciplinary science is often rather unreflecting and ambiguous, without providing a definition and without clarifying differences between related terms. For example, multi-science and interdisciplinary science are often used interchangeably. Some institutions refer to the demands of the outside world as an argument for interdisciplinary science. Reality is not divisible into disciplines, they argue. Most universities, however, emphasise that disciplines are the basis of their activities. It is through strong disciplines that good interdisciplinary or multi-scientific collaboration is achieved.

It may be noted that the age and size of the institution affects its relationship to interdisciplinary science. The oldest universities, Uppsala and Lund, are those that most emphasise their responsibility for the disciplines. At younger universities and some university colleges, collaboration across subject boundaries is described as a strategy for reaching the critical size and scientific level required in applications to external sponsors.

The review of the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education´s subject and programme evaluations also shows that the term interdisciplinary science is used frequently, and often in an unreflecting way, without clarification. The term is normally used in passing, or to describe collaboration across subject boundaries. Less is said about how this collaboration takes place in terms of interdisciplinary and multi-science. However, a fairly large proportion of subjects have been categorised as interdisciplinary in themselves. Here, also, age seems to be significant.

For young subjects, interdisciplinary science is often associated with problems that have to do with progress and subject core. For older subjects, with an established identity, interdisciplinarity can be positive instead. But there is a limit for older subjects as well. Too much and too broadly transgressive interdisciplinary work may be perceived as a threat to the subject´s identity.

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