The fourth in our SHAPE-ID webinar series, Shaping Conversations on Interdisciplinary Research, looked at challenges and best practice in funding inter- and transdisciplinary research in a European and national context. The SHAPE-ID Policy Brief recommends that funders and policymakers invite greater Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) participation in designing and evaluating inter- and transdisciplinary research funding calls and adapt funding instruments to acknowledge some of the unique features of inter- and transdisciplinarity, such as the time it takes to build mutually respectful collaborations. But what are the challenges for funding agencies on the ground, and how have they innovated in developing funding programmes? Representing a wealth of experience at European and different national levels, panellists Professor Milena Žic Fuchs (University of Zagreb), Tobias Bade Strøm (the Research Council of Norway) and Peter Brown (Irish Research Council) discussed their experiences and recommendations with Professor Jane Ohlmeyer (Trinity College Dublin), Principal Investigator of the SHAPE-ID project and Chair of the Irish Research Council.
Milena Žic Fuchs, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Zagreb and current member of the ERC Scientific Council, spoke from her own experience of some of the struggles national funding agencies encounter in evaluating and therefore supporting multi- or interdisciplinary research, and the gradual realisation that they are missing something fundamental in not accommodating such research, which frequently deals with real-world problems in novel ways. Noting that at European level the AHSS had frequently been treated as an add-on in Horizon 2020, Milena expressed optimism that the mindset was changing and that there was real will to include AHSS perspectives in call design in Horizon Europe, as pressing crises like the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change reinforce the need for “new networks of knowledge” drawing on cross-discipline expertise. She highlighted the importance of support from the AHSS community in contributing to efforts on the part of funders to incorporate their perspectives.
Tobias Bade Strøm, Special Adviser in the department for International cooperation at the Research Council of Norway, discussed developments in ‘SSH integration’ in Horizon 2020, prospects for Horizon Europe and how the Research Council of Norway is approaching the problem. Beginning with a quote from the OECD report Addressing societal challenges using transdisciplinary research, Tobias again highlighted the need for transdisciplinary research to become more mainstream, to address the complex societal challenges the world faces. He highlighted some limits (add-on integration and the dominance of economics and political science) and positive signs (e.g. education and humanities in ICT projects, psychology in transport projects and social geography in climate projects) in SSH integration efforts in Horizon 2020. He observed that despite some prominent advocates for greater integration in Horizon Europe, many challenges to implementation remain, particularly in influencing topic texts and ensuring adequate evaluation. Tobias also discussed the recent reorganisation of the Research Council of Norway from 50 distinct programmes to 15 broad portfolios, which makes coordinating synergies and working on cross-cutting challenges easier, despite the operational challenges of larger boards. The RCN aims to increase its budget share for the humanities across all portfolios from 3% to 5%.
Peter Brown, Director of the Irish Research Council, presented insights from a national funder’s perspective. The Irish Research Council (IRC) funds across and within disciplines and Peter argued that strength in individual disciplines is essential for the research ecosystem. The challenge lies in how to overlay on that disciplinary strength a really vibrant culture of interdisciplinary research. One area where national funding agencies have an important role to play is in feeding into national innovation strategies, to ensure a strategic commitment to interdisciplinarity. Peter also spoke about a number of initiatives the IRC have developed to explicitly build capacity in interdisciplinary research. The COALESCE programme funds research that addresses societal challenges, with one strand requiring AHSS leadership and collaboration with a STEM co-PI. The Creative Connections programme has funded networking opportunities to enable relationship-building. Of particular importance has been a commitment to this as a long-term effort. The IRC have published an evaluation of the Creative Connections programme, which will also inform future iterations of the programme. The success of these programmes has been seen in their feeding into Irish success in Horizon 2020. Peter highlighted the need for sustainable and predictable funding to support capacity building efforts and the value of dedicated funding for interdisciplinary and intersectoral collaboration in national strategies.
We were joined in the Zoom room by over 130 participants from across Europe as well as from the US, South America and Asia. Questions and contributions from participants led to a wide-ranging discussion on how to encourage interdisciplinary interests among doctoral students, the need for missions led by AHSS disciplines and the challenge of improving understanding of the AHSS, particularly their differences from concepts they are often associated with at EC level, such as societal impact and citizen engagement. A critical point was the importance of actually collaborating with other disciplines in order to gain experience and build trust and mutual understanding, and of sharing these experiences and best practices to raise awareness.