Insights from the Large Grants Training Day:
How to make interdisciplinary research proposals tough, sharp and hard rather than weak woolly and soft…

We’ve received copies of the short films made at our Large Grant Training Day back in April. It was an event that brought together the eight shortlisted project teams bidding for AHRC large grant funding under the Science in Culture Theme for a training day in Senate House at the University of London. The event was an opportunity for project teams to network with the Theme Leadership Fellow, Professor Barry C Smith, meet representatives from the AHRC and of course size up rival bids.

The invited speakers, Professor Andreas Roepstorff from the University of Aarhus and Professor Joelle Proust from the Institute Jean Nicod in Paris, tackled issues related to interdisciplinary working: an issue at the heart of the Science in Culture Theme. Watching the talks again reminded me of the real challenges of developing successful interdisciplinary research and the useful insights provided by our speakers.

So to launch our Science in Culture blog I thought I’d post summaries and reflections on the content. I’d urge anyone thinking of structuring an interdisciplinary research proposal to watch the film in full, (see the media section), and reflect on some of the key issues raised here.

Creating the right sort of research team 

Andreas Roepstorff provided practical suggestions to candidates on how to negotiate different types of interdisciplinary research. Drawing on his own experiences of working across Biology, Social Anthropology and Cognitive Science, he reflected on the challenges of achieving interdisciplinary working. It can be seen as ‘weak, woolly and soft’ or instead as something ‘tough, sharp and hard.’  Producing good interdisciplinary work comes from creating the right sort of research unit that brings together specific competencies to address particular issues.

There are many different ways of carrying out interdisciplinary research or as Andreas termed it ‘slicing the icing’. Researchers from different fields can be drawn together by a shared wish to use a new form of technology or can come together to work on a theme or topic of mutual relevance.

Key tools for interdisciplinary research:

Andreas identified three basic tools of interdisciplinarity, which he termed; ‘Triangulation’, ‘Frontloading’ and ‘Styling’.

  1. ‘Triangulation’, as in medieval mapping, sees scholars looking at the same issues using different methodologies.
  2. ‘Frontloading’ sees researchers identifying critical issues from one discipline through which to analyse others. e.g. looking at work in Neuroscience through the framework of Phenomenology.
  3. Research ‘Styling’ refers to an awareness of the existence of common thought styles and shared language used by researchers working in similar fields.  Trans-disciplinary research requires a sensitivity to the existence of these shared practices.

Do readers have experience of these different features of interdisciplinary working? Are there other ways of working you’ve found particularly useful?

Important social rituals

Besides reflections on interdisciplinary methodologies, Andreas also emphasised the very practical side of interdisciplinary research. Bringing people together to do interdisciplinary research requires social rituals to create suitable situations for the exchange of ideas. A sandwich lunch is a must it seems.

This blog post is part of a series that will document the workshops and activities taking place as part of the AHRC Science in Culture theme. The Science in Culture theme is a key area of AHRC funding and supports projects committed to developing reciprocal relationships between scientists and arts and humanities researchers.

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