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Inter- and transdisciplinary research – now more than ever

by Dr Jack Spaapen

The need for inter- and transdisciplinary research (IDR/TDR) is increasingly bringing new challenges to academic life and presenting new demands for research policy and funding. Responding to societal challenges requires multi-partner collaborations between experts with diverse disciplinary backgrounds, and various interests and perspectives that somehow have to be attuned. In practice this remains a challenge and more insight is needed into current IDR/TDR experiences.

SHAPE-ID contributes to the knowledge about IDR/TDR endeavours through a qualitative survey among European researchers and interviews with policy makers. The survey and interviews were carried out as part of Work Package 2 of the SHAPE-ID project (https://www.shapeid.eu), which also includes a review of the academic and policy literature. We focus on Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS), but are also interested in the growing collaboration between these fields and the so-called STEMM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine and Mathematics).

We address two main questions:

  • What are the main difficulties people encounter in forming a good IDR/TDR research team?
  • Which factors of success and failure can we see in the daily practice of IDR/TDR, in particular for AHSS researchers?

A full report on this work will be published shortly. Here we present some highlights from our findings.

One of the biggest obstacles to developing good IDR/TDR projects is that it is perceived as potentially damaging researchers’ career prospects. It is more difficult for inter- and transdisciplinary researchers to publish in high impact journals and it is more difficult to get funded, because reward systems are still primarily geared towards disciplinary indicators and structures. Other factors that hinder IDR/TDR are differences between disciplinary cultures and institutional factors, for instance lack of specific attention to IDR/TDR.

IDR/TDR is highly contextual, because clearly doing research on urban sustainability, healthy ageing or intercultural conflicts entails working with diverse partners and in varying policy contexts, with different goals and demands. Academic disciplines differ in their methodologies, outputs and modes of communication, but variation also exists between universities (some invest much more time, people and money in supporting IDR/TDR than others) and between countries (some have national IDR/TDR policies, others are less advanced in that respect).

It is important to create time and space to develop IDR/TDR projects. Survey respondents did not report major problems with the integration of AHSS research into larger projects because they work mostly on projects based on longstanding collaboration where sufficient knowledge was already exchanged and trust built. This also was the case when STEMM researchers were involved, although some respondents mentioned that differences in those cases were sometimes hard to bridge.

What policy makers can do to stimulate IDR/TDR

Researchers commonly operate at three different policy levels when applying for funding: institutional, national and international/EU. It would be useful if policy makers at these three levels attune their practices and policies for IDR/TDR research. EU programmes are most advanced when it comes to collaboration between disciplines and or with partners in society. However, these policies, in particular as reflected in the Work Programmes in Pillars 2 and 3 of Horizon 2020, are picked up by countries and universities to varying degrees. It would be advisable to create more exchange about policy topics and programmes and the possible contributions of academic institutions and other societal partners to address societal challenges in effective collaborative programs.

The knowledge and expertise gathered by researchers in EU projects could be more systematically shared within their institutions. Apparently, that does not happen too often in most universities. It would also help to have a good lead into the rich world of knowledge that already exists about IDR and TDR, for example an easy to navigate website and perhaps a toolkit with instruments to address the main obstacles people encounter when doing IDR or TDR. SHAPE ID is working on such a toolkit.

Furthermore, universities need to rethink their curricula and PhD training in terms of inclusion of IDR/TDR in curricula. They also should invest in using more comprehensive research evaluation systems that entail broader criteria and indicators, and intense interaction with the relevant societal stakeholders – public, private and also supranational.

National funding organisations are often still organised along disciplinary lines, whether they are split up (like in the UK) or integrated (like in the Netherlands). That makes it difficult to develop IDR and TDR programmes, in particular where AHSS disciplines are concerned. One problem is that STEMM fields are still seen as better equipped than AHSS to solve grand societal challenges. It would help if funders realise this and take special measures to change this cultural misunderstanding. Dedicated IDR/TDR calls can be a powerful instrument here, preferably developed with experienced researchers in the universities.

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