How can we evaluate the effectiveness of purpose-driven InterDisciplinary Research (IDR)?

InterDisciplinary Research (IDR) is gaining increasing popularity within research and teaching programmes, and has been praised by policy documents and initiatives. It plays a central role in H2020, particularly with regard to the integration of Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH). Yet the effectiveness of its practices is still not fully understood. For this to happen, the results of IDR need to be clearly assessed, identifying barriers, opportunities and factors that can contribute to its success, in order to fully exploit its potential. In effect, the rationale for increasing efforts in IDR is rooted in the need to understand and navigate the complexity of our world and create paths towards a sustainable transition. A novel approach to evaluation is needed to ensure that IDR can respond to grand Societal Challenges, in terms of both process and outcome. Specifically, what needs to be understood is how it can impact society and increase communities’ resilience and capabilities when facing complex, uncertain and fast change.

A two-week mission at the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute in Dublin allowed for some reflection on current IDR practices. The Long Room Hub is known for its research excellence in the Arts and Humanities, and strongly encourages an interdisciplinary approach. Its work is organised around several priority research themes that require the collaboration of different disciplines. A key example is the Digital Humanities, which brings together researchers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds to facilitate the investigation, analysis and presentation of information in electronic form, implementing projects on highly relevant topics such as big data and machine learning.

Thanks to library resources, events, interviews and knowledge exchange with researchers in the Hub, it was possible to identify some initial criteria that could help in the evaluation of IDR processes and results, bearing in mind its specific aim of impacting society and its capacity to address societal challenges.

First, while specific attention is devoted to the integration of SSH and how research impacts society, existing evaluation reports assess IDR projects in terms of how they are described on paper, rather than on how they are actually implemented or their outcomes. There is no mention of the impacts of IDR projects on society and little is said on the involvement of stakeholders beyond academia. It is difficult to measure the impact of individual projects in terms of addressing societal challenges. That said, some progress could be made by changing this approach and considering research processes, including the ways that researchers interact with the environments they work in, to be relevant research outputs. IDR could be evaluated  on its capacity to involve stakeholders from different sectors and backgrounds and other societal benefits, such as increasing connections. This could be achieved through the use of network analysis.

Second, IDR can boost research outreach, facilitating awareness-raising and public engagement in meeting societal challenges, especially when it comes to the natural sciences (e.g. to drive sustainable lifestyles), to provide citizens with scientific knowledge so that they can make responsible and conscious decisions. However, this aspect of SSH integration per se, even if it is important, may result in tokenism, preventing full cross-fertilisation among disciplines throughout all research phases. IDR has to facilitate dialogue among researchers, citizens, industry and policy makers to i) identify societal needs that urgently require solutions; ii) design research process and outcomes that are accessible and easy-to-understand; iii) be able to take insights and feedback from stakeholders beyond academia and from different disciplines to develop suitable solutions for complex problems. Different disciplines are not only important to provide a set of diverse tools to address thorny research questions, but they also offer a wide variety of perspectives from which to approach research questions. The more interdisciplinary the research, the more it can open minds. Therefore, a second criterion to evaluate IDR could consist in looking at the phases in which different disciplines are involved and what function each discipline plays in shaping the research.

Third, it is crucial to have a physical space that encourages cross-fertilisation. The Hub is a key example: standing by itself in a dedicated building, it increases the visibility of IDR. The space within the building is organised to facilitate exchange, dialogue, integration. Common spaces are favoured over individual offices and most researchers work in open spaces. “Coffee Mornings” and “Thematic Lunches” are organised regularly in these common spaces to share knowledge and collect feedback on IDR practices and how to improve them. Another practice is to encourage two-way interaction among different disciplines. For example, in the digital humanities, computer scientists provide tools and methods to navigate resources and visualise results for SSH, and  SSH shape machine learning and artificial intelligence to make them suitable for society. A buddy/one-to-one approach ensures that researchers listen to each others’ needs and proposed solutions, making the interaction more productive. Therefore, a third criterion for evaluating IDR could be looking qualitatively at facilities and practical methods for IDR, to assess their capacity for fostering cross-fertilisation among disciplines.

By Sara Baiocco