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SHAPE-ID at Vitae Connections 2020 | Capacity Building for Interdisciplinary Research

SHAPE-ID organised a panel discussion on 17 September as part of the Vitae Connections Week 2020 online conference. The panel was titled Capacity Building for Interdisciplinary Research with the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences: What Can Universities Do?

Panellists involved in the SHAPE-ID project, Professor Catherine Lyall and Dr Isabel Fletcher (University of Edinburgh) and invited guest panellist Professor Geoffrey Crossick (School of Advanced Study, University of London) joined chair Professor Jane Ohlmeyer (Trinity College Dublin and SHAPE-ID Principal Investigator) to discuss the challenges of building capacity for interdisciplinary research in higher education institutions, with an audience including research development professionals and representatives from funding agencies.

Dr Fletcher’s presentation set the scene, presenting results from the SHAPE-ID project’s review of policy literature to provide an understanding of a context in which interdisciplinarity is frequently called for at policy level but poorly supported on the ground. Some of the main challenges she identified include insufficient or inappropriate funding, uncertain career paths for interdisciplinary researchers, the longer time frames needed to develop interdisciplinary research and the ongoing effects of predominantly disciplinary institutional structures. Recommendations to address these are presented in the SHAPE-ID Policy Brief.


Professor Lyall delved deeper into the challenges of forging an interdisciplinary research career, drawing on her recent book Being an Interdisciplinary Academic to discuss the difference between the rhetoric and the reality of interdisciplinary careers. She highlighted some of the issues raised in career history interviews with interdisciplinary academics and university leaders, including the difficulty in finding the time and space to facilitate serendipitous encounters that can lead to new collaborations; the tension between career paths that are interdisciplinary from the outset and universities’ interest in hiring disciplinary experts who can then also work on interdisciplinary areas; and the need for universities to reconsider their structures for hiring academics, as well as their reward structures and overall value systems, to create a culture supportive of interdisciplinary research.


Professor Crossick urged more focus on interdisciplinarity between AHSS disciplines and not just AHSS contributing to STEM-led projects, noting in particular that the modes of research developed in the creative and performing Arts are frequently elided in discussions that tend to focus more on the Humanities, despite the Arts having developed in more interdisciplinary directions through interdisciplinary Arts practices and practice-based research. He also highlighted the importance of researching how interdisciplinary teams work in practice, to inform the growth of team-based research in the Arts and Humanities. Finally, he spoke further about the need for universities to facilitate serendipity, emphasising the bottom-up origins of much interdisciplinary research and the risks inherent in creating new institutional structures to embed particular interdisciplinarity formations.


The presentations were followed by an interesting discussion with panel attendees, covering such questions as the role research development staff can play in capacity building, the importance of common spaces to facilitate serendipitous encounters among researchers, and the value of small-scale funding initiatives to enable researchers, particularly at an early career stage, to meet, connect and build the relationships that can underlie successful interdisciplinary collaborations.

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