, Volume 118, Issue 3, pp 891–919 | Cite as

Universities’ structural commitment to interdisciplinary research

  • Erin LeaheyEmail author
  • Sondra N. Barringer
  • Misty Ring-Ramirez


In recent years, science policy experts have been promoting interdisciplinary research (IDR) in order to foster innovation and address grand scientific challenges. But to date we know little about whether, how, and to what extent universities are committed to fostering this type of research. This paper develops the first measure of university commitment to IDR, which relies on the organizational structuring of research activity into research centers and departments. We extend the previous literature by measuring, rather than assuming, the interdisciplinary nature of research units. Using a large amount of textual data from 157 research universities in the United States, and combining machine learning and confirmatory factor analysis techniques, we develop a continuous and composite measure that taps universities’ structural commitment to IDR. We then examine the commitment exhibited by specific universities and how such commitment varies by university characteristics like size, resources, and region. Results show that the fraction of centers and departments that are interdisciplinary is critical to measuring a university’s structural commitment to IDR and to developing specific research policies aimed at fostering IDR.


Universities Interdisciplinarity Research centers Departments Machine learning 

Mathematics Subject Classification

28 Measure & Integration 62 Statistics 68 Computer Science 

JEL Classification

C38 Classification Methods Principal Components Factor Models I23 Higher Education Research Institutions 



This research was supported by NSF SciSIP Collaborative Grants to Erin Leahey and Sondra Barringer (Award #s 1461989 and 1461846). Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. We are grateful to Steven Brint, Scott Frickel, and Jerry Jacobs for their foundational work, and to Karina Salazar and Esme Middaugh for impeccable research assistance.


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Copyright information

© Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, Hungary 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of SociologyUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Education Policy and LeadershipSouthern Methodist UniversityDallasUSA

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