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First SHAPE-ID Webinar | Interdisciplinarity in Times of Crisis: Why the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Matter

SHAPE-ID’s first webinar on 14th May 2020 addressed the importance of ensuring perspectives from the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences are part of the response to the COVID-19 crisis, with an international panel of speakers from the University of Aalborg (Denmark), the European Alliance for Social Sciences and Humanities (EASSH) and NUI Galway (Ireland).

While immediate responses have understandably tended to focus on funding research that can fight the virus, our world and ways of living have changed suddenly and radically, and there is a widespread sense that we cannot return to the old “normal”. Why do the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences matter in times of crisis and how can we work to ensure real collaboration between these and other scientific approaches in understanding the crisis and preparing for the post-crisis world? The discussion was chaired by Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, Principal Investigator of the SHAPE-ID project, Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub and Chair of the Irish Research Council.

We were joined by participants from across Europe and beyond, who contributed to a lively and engaged discussion. Our next SHAPE-ID webinar is being planned for late June and will take our recently published policy brief as a jumping off point for a discussion on the research-policy gap and how to bridge it. Further details will be available shortly on our webinars page and will be shared through our mailing list.

David Budtz Pedersen, Professor of Science Communication and Director of the Humanomics Research Centre at Aalborg University, argued that the current pandemic is as much a crisis of communication and behaviour as a medical crisis, and that we need the perspectives AHSS scholars bring to understanding our cultural environment, communicative skills, and ability to deal with contested values, uncertainty and decision-making. We need to ensure this understanding of the complexity of the crisis contributes to the evidence informing government policy. David spoke about his research on how science policy advice uses the AHSS. The research found that, in principle at least, guidelines and white papers on science advice from the European Commission, the OECD, the UK and the US, recognise the need for “a diversity of actors, disciplines, beliefs and perspectives,” including perspectives from the AHSS, from civil society and from citizens. To take advantage of this invitation for input, David proposed that the AHSS community needs to position itself to provide “timely and rigorous advice” and “become better at communicating qualitative evidence” and the value of the modes of reasoning prevalent within the AHSS – “not as opinion or making things more complex than they are, but to bootstrap policymaking, providing insight, perspective and analysis.”  

Gabi Lombardo, Director of EASSH, spoke about a recently published EASSH position paper calling for a portfolio approach to a COVID-19 “mission” and what this would look like. She pointed out that in the current crisis, just as we need someone to develop a vaccine, we need other perspectives to determine what to do with it once it is available. Using the metaphor of a carpet woven from multiple coloured threads, Gabi described the portfolio approach to missions as using the unique perspectives and qualities of individual disciplines to create something richer and more complex than the individual parts without blurring them into one another. Addressing a highly pertinent question to the audience of 150 participants from across Europe, Gabi asked: “Are we ready? Are we prepared to provide our knowledge? Are we organised?” The AHSS do great research but struggle to “band together as a research community to identify priorities, showcase what we do, have a database of experts.” EASSH would be able to benefit from this information to recommend experts where they are needed, target the right topics and advise policymakers about what the AHSS community can contribute. Not everyone needs to focus on policy priorities, but to be ready to respond to policy requirements we need “a community that knows each other.”

Daniel Carey, Director of the Moore Institute for the Humanities and Social Studies and Professor of English in the School of English and Creative Arts at NUI Galway, began by asking how the story of the current crisis would be told. Although “we need a sociological and a human imagination to address the current situation,” there is a risk that the AHSS will be sidelined. To address the challenge, Daniel argued that “we need to be bold” and to “highlight research questions and pressing issues that needs to be addressed” so that we can drive the agenda instead of adopting a defensive position. “We can take the long view,” he said, and the greatest potential lies in looking at future directions and consequences. Daniel then discussed the many concrete ways that AHSS insights were important, in considering how different political cultures shape the pandemic’s direction and the profoundly unequal ways the crisis plays out across the globe; how racism informs responses; the way communication works in the social media era and our relationship to expertise, information and the breakdown of trust; how different family structures cope with lockdown conditions; how education is reconfigured; the risks of “technical solutionism” we see in the rise of contact tracing apps; the reconfiguration of work, definitions of “essential workers” and new experiences of precarity; how narratives of the crisis are already emerging and how its history will be written; and how we deal with the new trade-offs the crisis has given rise to between health and economy, for instance, or between youth and age which are fundamentally philosophical problems. Daniel concluded by emphasising that “we need to be galvanised by topics, areas of research, where we can intervene. This is the most important strategy.”

Attendees in the Zoom room joined us from all over Europe – from Greece to Germany, Brussels to Spain, Italy to Sweden, Poland to Ireland – as well as from Brazil, the US and South Africa, and others followed on our Facebook live stream. Questions from a highly engaged audience stimulated a fascinating discussion after the presentation, addressing the role of the Arts, technology and the private sector, the impact agenda, and the kinds of tools and strategies needed to engage policy makers. Our panellists made strong points about the need for a coherent response and organisation from the AHSS community, for finding ways to track and compellingly showcase AHSS research contributions, and for building our capacity as a community to frame and present evidence to policy makers that bridge the gap between the complexity of the insights and the need for clarity and concision in communicating.

We had a terrific response on our post-event survey and there is clearly an appetite for more conversations around best practices in inter- and transdisciplinary research and how policy makers, funders and Universities can foster this. Our next SHAPE-ID webinar is being planned for late June and will take our recently published policy brief as a jumping off point for a discussion on the research-policy gap and how to bridge it. Further details will be available shortly on our webinars page and will be shared through our mailing list.

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