A European Commission review of the Horizon 2020-funded SHAPE-ID project endorses its finding that widespread change to the science system is needed to enable interdisciplinary research. The review has confirmed the need for deep-rooted reforms to existing institutional practices if the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS) are to be meaningfully integrated in collaborative projects.
SHAPE-ID, a Europe-wide consortium of academics, was established in 2019 with the aim of helping researchers, research organisations, funders and policymakers make informed decisions about developing and supporting IDR, or research drawing on more than one discipline.
The European Commission’s independent review of the project suggests that its new web-based toolkit, which provides practical guidance to each of these groups, be adopted by the European Commission and/or other national funders as a reference resource in their funding programmes and for training for expert evaluators. The toolkit has the potential to transform research approaches to urgent societal challenges by lowering barriers to interdisciplinarity, according to the independent review.
The SHAPE-ID toolkit, launched in June 2021, was designed to synthesise existing knowledge around interdisciplinarity and provide a “gateway” to direct users to relevant guides, checklists, case studies and recommendations. The review described the toolkit as a “world-class” resource that positions Europe as a leader in the field, warranting “careful consideration” by policymakers interested in adopting a holistic approach to research funding that enables the recognition of interdisciplinary expertise.
SHAPE-ID was also commended in the review for highlighting the possibilities offered by transdisciplinary research, which involves the integration of knowledge from both academic and societal partners. To date the field has been dominated by Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine (STEM) perspectives. SHAPE-ID provided a compelling case that transdisciplinary approaches involving the AHSS can complement technology and science contributions with essential insights into group and individual values, behaviour and cultural contexts.
However, the review agreed with the project’s findings that there is much more to be done in this area in collaboration with key user groups, including SMEs and citizen groups. It went so far as to recommend a future investment in an open-source initiative for creating an inter/trans disciplinary ‘’research commons manifesto” associated with the toolkit, promoting its free use and co-development in the community of researchers and practitioners.
SHAPE-ID’s principal investigator has welcomed the report. Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, a historian at Trinity College Dublin, says research performing organisations and research funders must actively build capacity for collaborative research. “The European Commission’s review is an encouraging endorsement of the work our team has done over the past two and a half years. It confirms the need for sweeping changes to existing research structures if IDR and TDR are to flourish. This toolkit will help universities and other knowledge actors address how policy, funding and institutional structures can better facilitate innovative research approaches. It has the potential to transform the higher education landscape by enabling deeper collaboration between disciplines as well as with societal partners”.
Prof Ohlmeyer stresses: “We are glad that research bodies across Europe have recognised the value of the toolkit, but further investment is now needed to make it a robust, crowd-sourced open resource for best practice and guidance.”
Project partner Catherine Lyall, Professor of Science and Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh, points out that academic reward systems still privilege work done within disciplinary structures. She says interdisciplinary researchers often face greater challenges in securing funding and being published in high-impact journals. “It is typically the case that people who work in an interdisciplinary way get less recognition early on in their careers, than you might if you were a leading star in biology, say, or engineering.”
Dr Isabel Fletcher, also University of Edinburgh, adds that AHSS scholars could be more outspoken about the merit of their approaches: “What’s clear is that there’s a real lack of understanding among STEM researchers 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.”
To view the toolkit now and access downloadable resources, click here.