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On Tuesday 23 May, SHAPE-ID Coordinator Professor Jane Ohlmeyer hosted a discussion with a panel of experts on the recently-released LERU report, “Implementing interdisciplinarity in research-intensive universities: good practices and challenges.” The report is an important update to their seminal 2016 report “Interdisciplinarity and the 21st Century Research Intensive University,” whose findings have been referenced worldwide. The webinar explored what has changed in the research landscape since both the 2016 report and the 2021 SHAPE-ID findings and toolkit, as well as what changes are still necessary across funding, policy and research performing organisations.
SHAPE-ID was delighted to welcome the report’s main author, Professor Didier Wernli, to deliver his findings. Professor Wernli is Associate Professor at the Global Studies Institute and the Computer Science Department of the Faculty of Science of the University of Geneva, as well as the Deputy-Director for research at the Global Studies Institute. Professor Ohlmeyer worked on the LERU report as Wernli’s co-author, and as such this webinar was an important moment of reconnection and reflection on an important milestone in the European interdisciplinary research landscape.
The webinar’s other panellists brought expertise from areas where interdisciplinarity is being employed to address complex global challenges. Dr Nicola Francesco Dotti is Senior Policy Officer for the Green and Digital Transition at Science Europe, and Dr Kimberly Couvson-Liebe is Scientific Officer at the DLR Project Management Agency, National Contact Point (NCP) Horizon Europe Cluster 2, and coordination team member for the EU-funded project Net4Society, the international network of Horizon Europe Cluster 2 National Contact Points.
The round table was attended by members of the SHAPE-ID network: researchers, funders, policymakers and representatives of Higher Education Institutions from around Europe, who were interested in hearing expert opinions on the LERU report and in joining the discussion on the future of interdisciplinarity for universities, industry partners and other stakeholders.
Professor Ohlmeyer introduced the audience to SHAPE-ID, explaining how the project’s key findings in 2021 – those of de-risking interdisciplinary careers and fostering leadership and partnership in the AHSS – aligned strongly with LERU’s values. This led to the collaboration between Wernli and Ohlmeyer and the writing of the 2023 report. After highlighting the definitions used by the LERU report in relation to disciplinarity (a shared background), multidisciplinarity (a shared topic with a juxtaposition of perspectives), interdisciplinarity (the integration of disciplines) and transdisciplinarity (collaboration between academia and other actors), she concluded her presentation by identifying the four key areas of the LERU report which she invited the panellists to discuss: education, research, career development and governance.
Professor Wernli, responding to Professor Ohlmeyer’s question on the progress made between 2016 and today, noted that the potential of interdisciplinarity has not been fully realised in relation to career development, especially in relation to the tenure process. However, there have been significant interdisciplinary advances made in educational programmes. Interdisciplinary research has, according to Wernli, developed and matured when considering the wider picture:
“The mode of organisations of the university has been based on disciplines for least one or two centuries, and obviously institutionalisation takes time. In that sense, I would say a lot has been achieved in the past 5 to 6 years.”
He also detailed the process by which the 2023 report was compiled, demonstrating the high level of collaboration and interest in interdisciplinarity between LERU’s member universities and the wider research community.
The next panellist was Dr Kimberly Couvson-Liebe, who discussed the importance of integration of AHSS. Focusing on the challenges of evaluation, she explained
“there needs to be more effort made in not setting the Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts aside because that is what essentially has always led to this tokenism, it creates a sort of confusion or insecurity in terms of what is being asked for.”
While there is positive movement in this regard, there is still a lack of clarity in what some projects which include AHSS call for. She has seen improvement is the way certain competencies are being asked for, but this can vary between research areas. Her final observation is that more reflection is still needed to ensure both AHSS and STEM disciplines know what is required of them when it comes to interdisciplinary work.
Dr Nicola Francesco Dotti then approached interdisciplinarity from the viewpoint of national research funding and performing organisations, reiterating the importance of the LERU report and identifying points of similarity with Science Europe’s recently released report. He observed that
“in our view, interdisciplinarity is a way to experiment with new ways of doing research, to keep on questioning what we do to improve it. I very much welcome the LERU report because you list a lot of good examples of what your universities are experimenting.”
The topic of conversation turning towards transdisciplinarity, Dr Dotti highlighted key research performing platforms addressing global challenges with stakeholders from across society. These institutes platforms recognise that challenges of climate, ocean, or biodiversity cannot be met by a single discipline. He noted the important links to the Humanities in relation to social and cultural values that must be established.
Following a question from SHAPE-ID partner Dr Jack Spaapen about the possibilities of accessing “in-between” experimental interdisciplinary spaces at a remove from the university around Europe, Professor Ohlmeyer then brought into the conversation two members of the SHAPE-ID team who have played pivotal roles in promoting interdisciplinarity research, policy and education.
The former SHAPE-ID project manager Dr Doireann Wallace is now a Senior Interdisciplinary Research Funding Specialist at Trinity College Dublin. She highlighted the importance of recognising and supporting the contributions of professionals supporting inter- and transdisciplinary researchers, discussing a study on this subject that she and Trinity colleagues Aisling Robinson and Patrick Lansley recently presented at the conference of the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators (EARMA). The team surveyed members of LERU, the Coimbra Group, The Guild and the Irish Universities Association, finding that while only 24% of those surveyed reported having research managers or administrators explicitly tasked with supporting inter- or transdisciplinary research, the vast majority nonetheless provide such support as part of their role.
Dr Isabel Fletcher (University of Edinburgh) updated the audience on the impact that the SHAPE-ID toolkit has had over the last two years. As one of the founders of the toolkit with Professor Catherine Lyall in Edinburgh University, she talked about the aim of “building a set of knowledge within a community and providing easy access to that knowledge.” The toolkit was built upon recommendations and requests made by the interdisciplinary research community: the guides, top ten lists and case studies have been in particular demand. Building on Dr Fletcher’s points, Professor Ohlmeyer stressed that the toolkit has proven to be a valuable resource. As such, it is vital that it be maintained and updated as the need for interdisciplinary frameworks across Europe grows.
After further questions from the audience regarding collaboration with the Global South and practical models for integrating interdisciplinarity into the university, Professor Ohlmeyer thanked the audience for their participation in contributing their ideas and sharing resources throughout the event. She concluded the webinar by asking each of the three panellists what they envisaged for interdisciplinarity in five years. Dr Dotti highlighted his hope for a change in opportunities for interdisciplinary careers advising the audience to learn more about the Coalition for the Advancement of Research Assessment. Dr Couvson-Liebe discussed building on the current momentum in the field to ensure students become familiar with interdisciplinarity from an earlier career stage, and Dr Wernli stressed evaluating interdisciplinary research as the most pressing challenge for that period of time.
The webinar concluded with Dr Wernli’s encouraging observation that the rise in demand for interdisciplinary educational programmes from students is a “unique opportunity to create new positions that both fit the needs of the programmes and creates adjacent position for many successful scholars involved in interdisciplinary research.”
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