Interdisciplinary toolkit is a blueprint for ‘world-class’ research


6 May 2022

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A toolkit produced by an Irish-led international initiative paves the way for the future of EU research, writes Catherine Healy.

The SHAPE-ID toolkit is described as a “world-class” resource in a recent review by the European Commission, paving the way for it to be considered for adoption by EU funders.

The resource, which promotes interdisciplinary research, is the work of a consortium of European partners coordinated by the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute. A review has suggested that it could be used to provide training for experts appointed to evaluate interdisciplinary proposals made under Horizon Europe, a €95.5bn EU research programme.

Future Human

The report says the initiative positions Europe as a leader in the field and warrants “careful consideration” by policymakers seeking a holistic approach to research funding. It says the project has shown the value of interdisciplinary research – or research that draws on more than one discipline – for addressing society’s biggest challenges.

‘Humans are at the centre of most of the world’s problems, and science and technology only take you so far in addressing them’
– PROF JANE OHLMEYER

This endorsement is considered a significant development for a field that has long been misunderstood in higher education.

Interdisciplinarity is a buzzword in many universities these days. The term often conjures up a picture of academics in different fields working independently around a common interest.

But what interdisciplinarity requires is collaboration that integrates knowledge from distinct disciplines – a challenging but critical task in addressing such global challenges as the climate crisis and artificial intelligence, according to policy experts.

The SHAPE-ID toolkit encourages a more meaningful collaborative approach to research with guidance on how to engage with specialists from other disciplines, how to co-design a successful project, and how to support and assess such projects. It includes guided pathways to help researchers, funders and policymakers develop and support interdisciplinary research, as well as case studies from across the EU.

STEM plus AHSS

The project puts a particular emphasis on the value of integrating AHSS (arts, humanities and social sciences) in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). A central theme is the importance of AHSS for scrutinising attitudes, behaviours and values, which can be critical for defining and framing societal problems.

The toolkit is bolstered by research on the conditions needed to support such collaboration, drawing on interviews with policy stakeholders along with academic and policy literature reviews.

The European Commission review of the project says it has “convincingly demonstrated that enabling AHSS integration requires a widespread change in the science system, from how policy is made to how science is funded, how researchers are trained and how their careers are evaluated by universities and funders alike”.

Towards transdisciplinarity

SHAPE-ID also highlights the possibilities offered by transdisciplinarity, which involves the integration of knowledge from both academic and societal partners. Its toolkit provides guidance for partnerships between third-level researchers and four key groups: artists and creative practitioners, citizen groups, enterprise, and the voluntary sector.

The European Commission review suggests that the project be further developed to promote such partnerships. It says that the toolkit could, for example, benefit SMEs interested in bringing human-centred perspectives to business.

‘Beyond tokenism’

Prof Jane Ohlmeyer, SHAPE-ID’s principal investigator, said third-level institutions and research funders must now actively build capacity for more collaborative research.

“We need to go beyond tokenism and think about how to integrate different modes of thinking in a deeper way,” she said. “The structures within universities can be changed to reward and incentivise interdisciplinarity, but we can also reconsider how funding calls are structured. It can be as simple as making sure you have inclusive language that makes people from different disciplines feel seen.”

A historian at Trinity College Dublin, Ohlmeyer is herself no stranger to interdisciplinary research. She was one of the driving forces behind the digitisation of the 1641 Depositions, a collection of witness testimonies on the Irish Catholic rebellion of 1641, which runs to 19,000 pages.

The material was transcribed and made available online by a multi-institutional team involving historians, linguists and computer scientists (with support from IBM) in what was hailed a game-changing development for the teaching of Irish history.

What did she learn from the experience? “A good dose of humility,” said Ohlmeyer.

“It teaches you the importance of trust and spending time getting to know people. You have to be willing to go outside your comfort zone and not be afraid to look foolish.”

Challenges to overcome

But academics involved in SHAPE-ID have also highlighted the barriers to pursuing such approaches. One persistent problem is the fact that academic reward systems mostly privilege work done within disciplinary structures. Interdisciplinary researchers can find it more difficult to secure funding and be published in high-impact journals, blocking their career progression.

Project partner Catherine Lyall, a professor of science and public policy at Edinburgh University, pointed to the continuing focus on individual disciplines in measuring research quality. “It’s typically the case that people who work in an interdisciplinary way don’t get recognition early on in their careers, which you might do if you were a leading star in biology, say, or engineering.”

Lyall said researchers can also face many hindrances in moving beyond disciplinary boundaries. “If you’re asked to teach in a different school, for example, you have to consider if that’s recognised by your own school, and whether there are administrative barriers to budgets moving between different units.”

Academics are further hamstrung by the view that STEM subjects are better suited to confronting the world’s biggest problems. Even in interdisciplinary projects, AHSS specialists tend not to set the key research objectives, often being assigned to auxiliary tasks like public dissemination.

“There are projects that invite AHSS researchers to the table, but only in an instrumental way,” said SHAPE-ID’s Dr Bianca Vienni Baptista, a senior researcher at ETH Zurich.

“The research priorities are still decided by STEM researchers, which may be suitable for certain types of problems but certainly not for all. What we need are spaces where people can sit down and have time to listen to each other and co-produce the research questions.”

‘We don’t know how to recruit or promote interdisciplinary researchers, or even where to put them’
– DR JENNIFER EDMOND

Dr Jennifer Edmond, an associate professor of digital humanities at Trinity College Dublin, sees such partnership as particularly crucial in dealing with technological innovation. One of the projects she currently leads, called K-PLEX, examines how humanities and cultural experts can help inform approaches to big data research.

“I think a lot of problems could be avoided by having a stronger culturally sensitive voice embedded in the way we develop technologies,” she said. “The arts and humanities shouldn’t be seen as a break on science or technology, but rather as a contextual frame that can make research more innovative, and more aligned with the world around it.”

However, Edmond added that there are many hurdles to be jumped as an academic working across different fields.

“There is a recognition that interdisciplinarity is the way to go in providing novel solutions to big problems, but that recognition often hits up against the scholarly establishments that we’ve built over centuries,” she said. “We don’t know how to recruit or promote interdisciplinary researchers, or even where to put them within institutions.”

Valuing new perspectives

Edmond has experienced frustration again and again in the course of her own career as an interdisciplinary scholar, from having her methods dismissed to facing bureaucratic roadblocks even in registering PhD students under her supervision – since doctoral candidates in her university are expected to be associated with a single discipline.

Lyall said interdisciplinary careers are still far from normalised within higher education. “We describe it in presentations as the ‘paradox of interdisciplinarity’, a term coined by the sociologist Peter Weingart.

“On the one hand, you have interdisciplinary research being very much promoted within the policy literature, and by funders and policymakers. But on the other hand, universities and research institutes are still largely geared towards single discipline structures. That’s a big challenge for researchers who want to do this kind of work.”

Although she acknowledges AHSS scholars need to be clearer about the merit of their approaches, Lyall thinks STEM researchers must also make a greater effort to communicate with colleagues from other disciplines.

“What’s clear is that there’s a real lack of understanding about what the arts and humanities have to offer. The message we’re trying to get across through the toolkit is that perspectives from these disciplines can bring so much value in terms of understanding human behaviour, and understanding how problems can be framed in different ways.”

Ohlmeyer agreed: “There needs to be a recognition that humans are at the centre of most of the world’s problems, and that science and technology only take you so far in addressing them. That’s why it’s critical that we engage with the AHSS community in addressing these challenges.”

By Catherine Healy

Catherine Healy is an Irish Research Council-funded PhD candidate at the Department of History in the School of Histories and Humanities at Trinity College Dublin.

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