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Reflections on an Interdisciplinary Funding Scheme: Perspective of a Research Officer

As a research funding officer working with the Arts and Humanities community in the Irish and European funding landscape, I am all too familiar with the policy imperatives that exist around the need to better fund and support interdisciplinary research (IDR). However, bespoke funding schemes that enable this kind of research to take place are often unfortunately thin on the ground. While there are opportunities in large funding programmes like Horizon 2020, within its Societal Challenges pillar and other collaborative aspects of the programme, the barriers to entry for initiating collaborations under these kinds of programmes can be quite high, especially for researchers at an earlier stage in their careers.

Firstly, one has to have the ability to tap into a wide network of European partners, something that takes time to build. Secondly, one needs some experience in managing collaborative research projects, which can also take time to accrue. If a researcher hasn’t collaborated as a partner in an international initiative before or had the opportunity to lead a smaller scale initiative on a national level themselves, they may lack the profile and confidence to take on an important role in these types of multi-partner projects.

This highlights the importance of suitable national funding programmes in helping foster collaborative interdisciplinary research. In the last 5-6 years in the Irish context we have seen the introduction of some initiatives to fund IDR which are early career researcher friendly. One of these, the COALESCE scheme offered by the Irish Research Council (IRC), has proven popular with the researchers that I support here in TCD.

The scheme first appeared in 2015 under a different name: New Horizons. In the first year of the scheme opening I found it didn’t get much traction among those I supported despite wide promotion. The IRC’s requirement for researchers from the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) to find a suitable partner from a STEM background was daunting for many within a call window of roughly 6-8 weeks. People felt they couldn’t possibly establish an effective working relationship with another Irish researcher in a completely different discipline and so declined the opportunity.

However, once the results of that first call in 2015 emerged (including interesting results such as a funded project involving a collaboration between a physicist and a philosopher) and with the call planned to run again in 2016, researchers in my area started to become interested. I have seen that interest grow in recent years.

To me this latter point highlights two important elements that I think play a role in funding policies and instruments being used as drivers to incentivise research that crosses disciplinary boundaries.

  • The visibility of projects that have crossed the AHSS/STEM boundary before acts as a motivator for people who are considering such collaborative work but are unsure if it’s really for them. Seeing examples of successful applicants from similar disciplines starts to plant seeds in people’s minds.
  • The need for a funding scheme with predictable deadlines to be in place so that researchers have something to work towards. Nothing catalyses action like a deadline and if people know a call will open within a given time frame they start to orientate their plans and networking accordingly.

When reflecting on the programme in recent days I spoke to the Programme Manager for the current iteration of the COALESCE scheme, Dr Deirdre Quinn, and the Assistant Director of the Irish Research Council, Dr Eavan O’Brien. Dr O’Brien explained that the initial drive for the scheme in 2015 was a motivation to enable Irish researchers to build their capacity to develop larger collaborative projects in the future that address the Horizon 2020 Societal Challenges. The IRC saw a need to support the fostering of leadership, especially among researchers in the AHSS community, in addressing these kinds of challenges, and saw themselves as the only agency in Ireland whose mission would enable them to do this. They also wanted to design a programme that structurally enabled real collaboration and avoided funding projects where one or the other partner was either dominating the agenda or being artificially ‘tagged on’, as is sometimes the case in interdisciplinary projects.

Thus, the interdisciplinary strand of the programme required applications to be led by a researcher from an AHSS background with a named co-investigator from a STEM discipline. From an AHSS perspective this creates a welcome dynamic whereby the AHSS researcher has an opportunity to define their terms of engagement from the start.

In terms of evaluation, Dr Quinn stressed the importance, for the IRC, of applicants selecting suitable keywords, as this is very helpful in assisting them to secure and assign the best international reviewers (each application is reviewed by 4 reviewers). She also added that there is a greater need for clarity on the part of applicants in communicating the research proposal, given that reviewers of interdisciplinary research will be from a wide range of different disciplines. Applicants to interdisciplinary funding calls cannot take for granted that those reviewing their proposal will be familiar with the conventions or terms they use. It should also be noted that the interdisciplinary strand has relatively significant funding attached to it (c. €220,000). This was a feature intended to acknowledge that collaborative interdisciplinary work sometimes takes longer than research within a single discipline and may be costlier to undertake.

These kinds of structural provisions are interesting for SHAPE-ID since the project will be developing recommendations for funders on how to better design funding instruments to support IDR. SHAPE-ID will consider programmes like COALESCE when looking at the current funding landscape and how it supports collaborative work that crosses disciplinary boundaries. We are very keen to learn of other national programmes that are trying to fund interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary research involving AHSS across Europe and encourage any readers who are aware of IDR funding instruments in other countries to get in touch by email at or on Twitter @shapeID_eu.

The next IRC call to include the open interdisciplinary strand of COALESCE will run in 2020.

Other relevant resources from TCD: Workshop Report and video from 2016 Interdisciplinarity for Impact Event.

by Maureen Burgess

Maureen has been the Research Programme Officer in the Trinity Long Room Hub since 2013. Her main role is to help staff affiliated to the Trinity Long Room Hub schools to identify and apply for competitive research funding. Before working in the Trinity Long Room Hub, Maureen worked in research funding administration roles in the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and the Irish Research Council for Humanities and Social Sciences (now the Irish Research Council).

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