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How can the Arts and Humanities position themselves as leaders in societal challenges research? Insights from the first SHAPE-ID workshop

There’s a growing interest in increasing the involvement of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) disciplines in inter- and transdisciplinary research (IDR/TDR), particularly for addressing global challenges with major societal impact, like climate change, healthy ageing and the effects of rapid technological transformation. It is also widely recognised that where interdisciplinary collaborations do take place, the involvement of AHSS disciplines is often tokenistic, and that some AHSS disciplines, such as economics and political science, are far more frequently represented in interdisciplinary research with Science, Technology, Engineering Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) disciplines. This is the context within which SHAPE-ID was funded by the European Commission to produce a toolkit and recommendations for improving pathways to AHSS integration.

Between December 2019 and May 2020, we are organising six learning case workshops in cities around Europe to learn directly from stakeholders’ experience in doing inter- and transdisciplinary research on a wide range of challenges. Our first workshop was designed to explore how the Arts and Humanities in particular could position themselves as leaders in research addressing societal challenges.

SHAPE-ID Workshop (Dublin) Video

A short snapshot of the SHAPE-ID workshop held in Dublin (December 2019), which brought representatives from academia (in both the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) and Science, Technology Engineering and Math (STEMM), government, the private sector and civil society to discuss how the Arts and Humanities can be better included as leaders and co-creators in interdisciplinary research

Posted by Shape-ID: Shaping Interdisciplinary Practices in Europe on Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The workshop, which took place on 2-3 December 2019 at the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute, Trinity College Dublin, brought together researchers from Arts and Humanities and STEMM disciplines, with funders, policy makers and representatives of industry, arts and cultural institutions.

Through discussion and co-design, we aimed to identify practical solutions to overcoming barriers to Arts & Humanities (AH) integration. Workshop sessions explored the potential of AH disciplines to contribute to or lead IDR/TDR addressing societal challenges; the mindsets and organisational cultures that act as barriers or supports to AH-STEMM integration; pathways to overcoming these obstacles; and how existing or potential “Missions” (in the context of the emerging mission-oriented research paradigm being embedded in Horizon Europe) could be structured to enable AH leadership and substantial contributions.

We’ve already published a short summary of the day, including of the excellent scene-setting presentations from invited speakers, on our News page. Here, having had time to digest the fascinating conversations from across the two-day event, we want to share some of the main insights emerging from the workshop. A full workshop report will be produced once all six workshops have been completed and their outcomes analysed.

What role can the Arts & Humanities play?

There was widespread acknowledgement from participants of the contribution Arts and Humanities perspectives can make to how societal challenges are addressed in research projects. Participants felt that the emphasis on human-centred values has the potential to reshape how a problem is framed and approached from the outset. In particular, the AH perspective can contribute to redefining what is of value by centralising the human and the societal, thereby helping to rebuild trust in fractured societies. This can redefine the direction of research, for instance towards how to live with rather than try to solve problems that are complex and highly contextual in nature (e.g. living with dementia). Furthermore, the historical and critical perspectives of AH researchers can help highlight the contingency of current narratives and values, opening up the potential to actively explore alternatives.

What is needed to improve AH integration?

A number of key insights and recommendations arose from the discussions and activities:

  • Valuing disciplines: strong disciplines are the foundation of good interdisciplinary collaboration, ensuring that partners bring deep and unique disciplinary expertise, and that they have the confidence to understand and communicate the value of these contributions. The importance of disciplinary training must be acknowledged and valued.
  • Supporting interdisciplinarity: while maintaining an understanding of the importance of disciplines, institutions must also ensure that interdisciplinary researchers (from all disciplines) flourish rather than suffer for pushing boundaries and taking risks.
  • Relationships: core to successful interdisciplinary collaboration are mutual respect and trust, which take time to establish. It is essential to factor in the time and space necessary to establish these, both prior to and at the beginning of major collaborative projects. Readiness to approach collaboration as a level playing field is important in overcoming power imbalances and misunderstandings that are common due to disciplinary cultures and a tendency within Universities and government policy to more highly value STEMM disciplines currently.
  • Funding instruments: one important means of facilitating relationship building is providing seed funding to develop collaborations, with less risk to funders and researchers. Diversified funding instruments are also needed to support activities from small-scale exploratory projects to large-scale research infrastructure, which can provide the spaces and opportunities for collaboration.
  • Leadership, training and education: there is a need for capacity-building to ensure AH researchers have the means to lead and collaborate in interdisciplinary research teams, particularly training about interdisciplinary work, facilitation and the translational activities involved in communicating research across disciplinary boundaries and beyond academia. The AH community needs strong, enterprising leadership to enable this.
  • Challenge-based research questions: overarching themes and challenges were identified as one good way of bringing researchers and other stakeholders from diverse backgrounds together to work on a common problem.
  • Greater understanding: there is a lack of meta-research on Arts and Humanities research and more work is needed to understand and effectively communicate the value of AH research.
  • Other voices: researchers need to develop more open and inclusive structures to engage society. Recommendations included seed funding for building collaborations that include stakeholders from outside of academia, new inclusive fora for developing multi-stakeholder projects and proposals, and the involvement of citizens in aspects of proposal evaluation.
  • Reframing policy priorities: decisions on investment and funding need to place societal benefit and not just financial return on investment at their core.The emphasis on innovation should be counterbalanced with efforts to achieve a more just and equal society and just innovation. The Arts and Humanities should be integrated into the understanding and regulation of digital technologies.

We welcome and encourage your comments!

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