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Event feedback: Interdisciplinarity in European research from the perspective of the Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities

The UK Research Council  Office recently attended a conference entitled ‘Learning by Doing. Making Interdisciplinarity Work. Lessons Learnt From FP7 Projects’, which explored the role of interdisciplinarity in European research from the perspective of the Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities (SSH).

The article below provides a short summary of the event:

Organised by the international network of National Contact Points for SSH, NET4SOCIETY, in partnership with the European Alliance for the Social Sciences and Humanities, the conference afforded researchers from different disciplines and SSH stakeholders the opportunity to interact and share experiences and good practices through the description of interdisciplinary research projects in different FP7 themes.Moving forward towards Horizon 2020, the conference sought to overcome the challenges inherent in properly integrating contributions from SSH into different research fields, through presentations from project coordinators on a series of thematic panels. Each of these was then followed by a panel discussion with the involvement of the audience.

A speaker from the European Commission began by saying that in Horizon 2020 interdisciplinarity will be applicable across all three pillars “where appropriate” – conceding that from an SSH perspective appropriateness was as yet left without clear definition.  According to the Commission there will be a variety of approaches for interdisciplinarity and varying degrees of relevance of SSH, with some naturally SSH free zones.

Three problems with interdisciplinary work were highlighted: firstly, that there remains resistance among some researchers to the ideals of interdisciplinarity; secondly, that difficulties exist in building a career around interdisciplinary research due to complications with publishing research findings – and thirdly a reference to “fake” interdisciplinarity through the bolting-together of research topics.

The thematic panel presentations and discussions, although focusing on some very dissimilar research collaborations, found much common ground in terms of pitfalls and recommendations for interdisciplinarity under Horizon 2020. Successive presenters began by stressing to the audience that the level of repetition among talks was in fact a very positive sign as it showed a high level of agreement among contributors.

A number of key themes for success in interdisciplinary research emerged from the presentations and discussion:

1). The composition of review panels needs to reflect the interdisciplinary nature of the research projects under review;
2). Substantive involvement of each of the disciplinary communities is needed at proposal/project design/goal setting stages;
3). The need for an experienced Project Coordinator;
4). The need to establish a common language among the research group, which feeds into a strong conceptual framework; and
5). The need to build-in a level of flexibility to negotiate among different partners throughout the project.

The main recurrent point made at the event was that ultimately it is the Work Package structure and project specifications that will be the main challenge in terms of hardwiring Horizon 2020 with interdisciplinarity. Some contributors wondered whether entire work programmes ought to be designated interdisciplinary rather than just specific projects.

A representative of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) provided insights into the ESRC’s approach to interdisciplinarity, pointing out that the Societal Challenges to be seen in Horizon 2020 match very closely the Research Councils’ cross-council priority areas. It was stressed that disciplines are social constructs and are therefore varied in the nature of their categorisation, and that research – as policy at the UK research councils reflects – must be funded on the merits of the endeavour and the rigor of the approach rather than any ‘artificial’ classification within subject area.

Finally, an argument was put forward for sufficient funding for interdisciplinary research as warranted by the additional costs incurred from the necessarily extended lengths of research of this kind, and the question asked of whether or not a move towards greater open access will impact upon the evident tension with disciplinary publication incentives.

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