Funding and performing interdisciplinarity for Climate Action and Digital Transition

Science Europe published a study on “Interdisciplinary Research for the Green and Digital Transition”. This survey-based study, published in November 2022, maps the existing experiences of Science Europe members, i.e. European national research funding and performing organisations, and proposes recommendations to reinforce, develop and improve how inter-/trans-/cross-disciplinary research can contribute to tackling the climate crisis and digitalisation challenges. This post presents a conversation with the authors about their main findings.

What is new in your report?

Our study provides evidence that interdisciplinary research, whatever we define it, exists extensively across Science Europe’s member organisations. The report presents definitions, examples, and reasons for choosing an interdisciplinary approach when research wants to engage with climate change and digitalisation.

The discussion on interdisciplinarity is not new; it is a longstanding reflection on how scientific research activities are organised and carried out, as explained in the ISC Centre for Science Futures discussion paper. Our goal is to provide concrete experiences of interdisciplinary research from both research funders and performers with a particular interest in research addressing the green and digital transition. We focused on Science Europe’s members, but we are aware that many other research organisations share similar experiences. With our focus on green and digital transition, we demonstrate the ongoing efforts to tackle a novel and rapidly evolving policy and research area.

Let’s proceed in order: How do you define inter-/trans-/cross-disciplinary research?

The answer to this question is very complex. Aware of the complex philosophical discussions raised in the Centre paper, we decided to ask our member organisations about their definitions. The fundamental answer is that, if we want to promote interdisciplinarity, we should avoid strict, formalised definitions. Scientific disciplines constantly evolve and have no fixed boundaries. Hence, an open approach to interdisciplinarity could mobilise multiple approaches, theories and methodologies. It is important to encourage these processes.

The readers will find more definitions in the link, also addressing the differences between inter-/trans-/cross-/multi-disciplinarity. Here we have chosen a synthetic, but effective one.

 Interdisciplinary research […] refers to research across disciplinary boundaries. In order to achieve the relevant research objectives, it is necessary to combine elements (theories, methods, concepts, etc.) from two or more disciplines. A similar degree of importance is attached to all the disciplines involved.

Source: SNSF, Switzerland.

I like this openness. Now I am curious about the second part of your title: why the green and digital transition?

Climate change and digitalisation are two of the most urgent societal challenges we are facing today. Especially in the case of the climate crisis, science plays a fundamental role in analysing and interpreting the changes of our climate, environment and biodiversity, and how these issues interconnect with human activities. The work done by the IPCC is the primary reference. Still, behind the IPCC is the mobilisation of research communities at all levels. Digitalisation is a more recent societal challenge. Nonetheless, it is clear to everybody that computers, internet and artificial intelligence are having a huge impact on our societies. Currently, we have a lot of discussions about ChatGPT, and we can assume that digitalisation and artificial intelligence will fundamentally impact our daily lives.

A single, monodisciplinary approach cannot address these challenges. Understanding climate change, we need to study the climate system, but also its interconnections with biodiversity, the economy, and our societies and cultures. Similarly, the digital revolution cannot be limited to computer science; we also need to mobilise  communication science and psychology, combining software and hardware, and so on. The research community knows this complexity, and research organisations are, at the same time, leading and reacting to this revolution.

In the report, you can find a long section of what we refer to when speaking about the green and digital transition, from water, energy and ecosystems to food, supercomputer, and the interplay between health and digitalisation. These topics are associated with the funding instruments and research platforms our members have across Europe.

Thanks. I see the report has a long list of examples divided by research funders and performers. What are the main challenges?

There are different challenges for research funding and performing organisations.

For research funders, the main difficulty to overcome is the mobilisation of research groups that are not used to working together. Funding instruments follow the same framework as ‘disciplinary calls’ to facilitate applicants. Still, developing an excellent inter-/transdisciplinary research proposal is a demanding task. The points raised in the ISC Centre for Science Futures paper highlight this challenge very well, and we are glad to show that Science Europe’s members are experimenting new practices, reflecting on how they work, and engaging with the challenge of inter-/transdisciplinarity.

Our research performing organisations have developed many platforms to facilitate the interaction among research units, internally or with external partners. The main limitations arises due to research careers that are still based on monodisciplinary paths and, in general, the way research activities are assessed. In this respect, the recently launched Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (COARA) points in the right direction. The Centre paper emphasised the importance of the scientific ‘process’, and this is of paramount importance.

What is your final message?

We have two, one on lessons learned and one on advice. The lesson learned is that there are plenty of interdisciplinary research experiences, both among research funders and research performers. These experiences aim to experiment with new forms of doing research. The first keyword is therefore “experimentation”. While researchers are experimenting in their labs, research organisations are also experimenting with their funding instruments and interdisciplinary platforms. It is an important part of how science can progress.

Second, we need to scale up these experiences. The climate crisis and digitalisation call for immediate and urgent action. Scientific research should play its role.

We need to keep experimenting with new ways of doing research, and scale-up these inter-/transdisciplinary activities that are already in place.

 

The report is available by using this link. For more information, contact Dr Nicola Francesco Dotti (Science Europe), Nicola.Dotti@ScienceEurope.org

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