In this conversation I spoke to several of the SHAPE-ID (Shaping interdisciplinary research practices in Europe) project team members to find out more about the project and key outputs for interdisciplinary research. SHAPE-ID is an EU funded Horizon 2020 project that seeks to address the challenge of improving interdisciplinary cooperation between the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) and the Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and other disciplines.
Why is integration of the AHSS in interdisciplinary research so important?
Prof. Jane Ohlmeyer (PI on SHAPE-ID) explains that the power of interdisciplinarity is increasingly being recognised, and that some of the biggest societal problems demand an interdisciplinary approach to find solutions. Jane continues to explain that, often, in interdisciplinary research the missing ‘secret sauce’ is often that the AHSS disciplines are not fully integrated. SHAPE-ID is a conscious effort to engage the full spectrum of the AHSS disciplines in interdisciplinary research and collaborations. Jane emphasises the importance of including the Arts in particular, as the tokenism that can characterise Humanities and Social Sciences involvement in interdisciplinary collaborations is magnified in the case of the Arts, which are virtually excluded from the conversation. Jane uses the metaphor of the Arts being like the canaries in the mine, making audible what later becomes visible, acting as an early warning system in any society.
Jane explains further that integration of the AHSS in interdisciplinary research is necessary to solve society’s biggest problems, but it doesn’t need to be driven by societal challenges. There is an intrinsic value of collaboration across disciplines. SHAPE-ID seeks to provide resources and a toolkit for best practice for integration of disciplines, but also aims to be honest about where it doesn’t work. Interdisciplinarity is of huge importance, and by not getting it right we are not delivering fully on the potential of interdisciplinary research.
Prof. Catherine Lyall (Lead Researcher on SHAPE-ID) outlines how the European Commission have recognised the importance of the AHSS in research collaborations, but also that AHSS-led projects were less successful in winning funding. Therefore, SHAPE-ID was funded to understand how they could address this and improve the balance of funding across the disciplines.
What will the toolkit include, and how will it address this imbalance?
Dr. Isabel Fletcher (Senior Researcher on SHAPE-ID) explains that the SHAPE-ID Toolkit aims to provide advice and resources for different stakeholders in interdisciplinary research (researchers, research performing organisations, funders and policymakers, and research co-creators) to develop their interdisciplinary understanding, practices and interests. It tries to join up the vast amount of knowledge already available on interdisciplinarity, creating more accessible resources and tools to help stakeholders navigate these disparate bodies of information more easily. It also tries to provide good practice examples from different disciplines, improving cross disciplinary sharing of best practice.
Dr. Bianca Vienni Baptista (Senior Researcher on SHAPE-ID) adds that there are other toolkits already available with different aims and with different understandings of collaborative research. The SHAPE-ID toolkit is unique in that it provides a specific focus on the AHSS subjects, providing information and solutions to improve integration and better value the contributions of AHSS disciplines. It also links up the otherwise very fragmented existing information and resources on inter and transdisciplinary research, making it much easier for beginners and newcomers to the field to get started, and for funders and policy makers to make sense of the complex information available.
Key recommendations to improve integration
Bianca explains that one of the key recommendations from the project is that framing funding calls or project proposals in terms of problem-solving approaches can exclude the AHSS disciplines from the start, as they may have very different approaches and ways of understanding research. There is no one way or right way of doing inter and transdisciplinary research, and this needs to be recognised for proper integration of the disciplines and to make best use of the different perspectives and insights the AHSS can bring to enrich a project.
Bianca includes that AHSS disciplines need to be included in funding calls and designs at a very early stage to ensure the language and vocabulary used does not unintentionally exclude these disciplines, but is more open to a range of perspectives, inviting new collaborations.
Isabel discusses how important it is to provide more opportunities and funding for researchers to build relationships, understanding of each other’s work and trust in interdisciplinary research processes. Building a real understanding of the different approaches takes time, and it’s is a long and iterative process. Isabel adds that because it takes time, it also needs money to allow people to meet and to build that understanding. Without this it is very hard to achieve real integration of the disciplines. Funders should include the need for extra time and money in their funding models for interdisciplinary research.
Isabel adds that there is a need for more flexible funding instruments, that doesn’t just jump from the funding call to a big complicated proposal in one step. Existing research shows us that the most successful interdisciplinary projects are done by people who already have good trusting working relationships. Therefore, funders should include small amounts of funding at the project proposal stage to allow researchers to come together and build these relationships before the proposal is finalised and submitted.
Putting it into practice
Jane is also the chair for the Irish Research Council (IRC), and gives two examples of how the IRC have promoted AHSS led interdisciplinary research and integration. Jane discusses a programme that allows for networking of researchers, and actually SHAPE-ID was born out of one of these IRC networking programmes. They then went on to win Horizon 2020 funding, which shows a phenomenal return on the initial investment in a networking event by the IRC. This demonstrates how seed funding to promote interdisciplinary collaborative relationships can be hugely successful. Jane also includes an example from the IRC’s Coalesce Programme that encourages collaboration across disciplines, led by a colleague in AHSS. This scheme has also been very successful, and several of the Coalesce researchers have gone on to become successful leaders of Horizon 2020 interdisciplinary programmes.
For SHAPE-IDs outputs, Jane adds that the toolkit will be a success when research committees across research institutions, the European Commission and other stakeholders are actually drawing on the toolkit and the policy briefs to create meaningful collaborations and integration of disciplines in research. SHAPE-ID was able to include stakeholders and viewpoints from a large number of colleagues from across the world, and this has all enhanced the many SHAPE-ID outputs.
Jane’s excitement for inter and transdisciplinary research stems from her own experiences of being an interdisciplinary researcher in AHSS driven collaborations. The enthusiasm and genuine interest in the power of interdisciplinary research is evident in SHAPE-ID’s work, and I think it has provided those who share this passion to feel excited again about what interdisciplinary research can achieve when it is truly integrated and collaborative.