07 Nov 2020

Challenges of the interdisciplinary collaboration (1)

European Projects Behind the Scenes (6)

Gregor Cerinšek, IRI UL

The current challenges of our society demand for an interdisciplinary approach and collaboration among scientists, researchers, entrepreneurs, activists, artists and public servants, to mention just a few. Mantra, which is on a daily basis repeated over and over again and which can be found in European strategies, recommendations from consultants, academic discourse, newspapers and in informal chats and discussions that we have over a cup of coffee, when jointly saving key problems of our world. Furthermore, several programmes and calls for European projects highlight the need for cross-sectoral cooperation. We firstly aim to explain the identified problems through several disciplinary lenses and, furthermore, deal with them in an interdisciplinary manner with different experts working hand in hand towards achieving common goals.

Next step is the transdisciplinary approach crossing different disciplines and forming a holistic approach for solving complex societal challenges. Transdisciplinarity demands from individuals to give up the expert blinders of their disciplines and try to see the challenges from a bird’s eye view. As researchers we should not focus on a problem solely through the lenses of our particular discipline. This would resemble reaching the top of a mountain (=achieving research objectives) following a familiar trail (=theories and methods of our own discipline). And when we once reach the top, other climbers (=researchers from other disciplines) are already waiting for us or are still on their way. However, a transdisciplinary approach requires climbing endeavour in which we jointly discover and follow an unknown route and in which we equally and collaboratively reach the top investing collective efforts. There is no single guide and no predefined climbing technique. It is the context that decides which method is the most appropriate and effective in concrete circumstances. A genuine transdisciplinary approach requires from individuals:

  1. to be aware of partiality and constraints of our own discipline and to overcome them in cooperation with others;
  2. to overcome egoism of own discipline and the logic “everyone knows everything”; and
  3. to overcome egoism of own institution/department/lab/group and the logic of “cultivating one’s own garden”.

It seems that these new emerging fields that are formed at intersections of different disciplines can present a competitive advantage especially for “smaller” countries such as Slovenia – since it is more difficult to equally compete with most prominent universities within well-established scientific disciplines (although there are also aspiring exceptions). Still, based on interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaboration we are able to develop new approaches and solutions that could be revolutionary and competitive on a global scale.

However, reality could be quite different. The three challenges described above are in my opinion especially present in academic environment where we observe narrow specializations within specific disciplines (with specific professorships for left screw and right screw – as expressed by my research informant) and where we face battles between related (next door) labs of the same faculty in order to prove “who is most suitable and competent to decide what is true or false within certain field or discipline”. Despite the bombastic talks about the necessity of cooperation between fields we quickly encounter difficulties when it comes to bridging the gap between natural sciences and technology on one hand, and social sciences and humanities on the other. We are still most secure in our own gardens as we are able to comment, evaluate and judge the work of others from our “expert” positions – so the work of those who dared to cross the line and tried to touch the broccoli and turnip of our specific field.

And how is with the interdisciplinarity in EU projects? Reading the requirements of several calls for research & development projects we would assume that these kinds of collaborations are rather self-evident and overarching. But is this really the case?

I have already spoken about project networks in one of my previous blog posts. These networks are not only bound to one specific project; their boarders are not clear; and connections among members rely on common interests for scientific, research or development topics and related key challenges of our society (as for instance digitalization of education, energy efficient buildings, circularity, structural unemployment, sustainable mobility etc., to mention just a few). But inside this boarder “thematic network” certain field-specific groups evolve whose members share among themselves common theoretical and methodological principles in the context of a scientific domain to which they belong to. We can understand this kind of “shared view” towards certain topic of interest as a constellation of collective domains, believes and values that from and connect certain research community.

Despite the mantra around the meaning and necessity of interdisciplinary cooperation in EU projects we still observe relatively slow theoretical progress that would lead to greater paradigmatical changes. A typical example is involving people (citizens, occupants, members of a community, users, customers etc.) in research & development processes requiring equal collaboration among research fields and different methodological approaches (read more). In principle, we all agree that people are not just economic agents who are above all motivated by a calculus of costs and benefits – and that therefore we should also try to understand their hidden motives, values and interest that drive their decisions. Furthermore, we also acknowledge that not all scientific fields are equally adequate to provide in-depth studies of these human-related “influencing parameters” (as stated by certain disciplines). Still, when it comes to concrete planning and operationalization of the research & development processes, we frequently encounter not only misunderstandings and confusion, but also conflicts, suspicion, underestimation and rejection of everything that does not derive from logical positivism (as an example, could also be other way around).

Gregor Cerinšek, IRI UL researcher and project manager, reflects on the background of European projects, i.e. all practices, events and activities that are not publicly discussed, but nevertheless significantly affect the acquisition of projects, their course and long-term success (or failure). He formulates findings and recommendations on the basis of conversations with project managers, coordinators, researchers, supervisors, consultants and evaluators – with all those who are in any way involved in the phenomenon of European projects.

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