This is a guest blog post by Dr Henrik Shoenefeldt, University of Kent, a participant from the AHRC Science in Culture Theme Workshop on The Lived Environment.
Last week, I took part in a three-day research workshop at the Royal Society, which was organised by the AHRC with the aim of bringing together researchers from various fields in the sciences, arts and humanities, as well as practicing artists with an interest in science. Participants were chosen through a competitive selection process, following a call in April 2015. The aim of the workshop was to explore how collaborations between scientists and researchers in the arts and humanities could enable new ways of studying the ‘Lived Environment’, which was the theme of the workshop.
The workshop started on Tuesday with a networking session. We were asked to write brief notes, explaining our area of research and fields or pitch research questions that could only be answered through collaborations with other disciplines. We posted these notes on a wall and went round to find out what the other participants had posted. Similar to speed-dating, this process allowed us to identify very quickly people with shared interests or those with the skills and knowledge we need to address the research questions. I had some very interesting conversations with researchers in the arts and humanities engaging with questions of science. This included researchers and artists using virtual reality and art installations in the communication of science.
Over the next two days we had a number of talks exploring the nature of cross-disciplinary research, and various group working sessions. This includes a talk by Lucy Kimble, an AHRC Research Fellow about her work with the Cabinet Office, and Professor Helen Chatterjee, UCL, provided us with insights into her experience with public engagement in research. Tom McLeish, Professor of Physics, University of Durham and Fellow of the Royal Society also gave a fascinating talk about a project involving collaborations between physicists and medieval historians. These talks illustrated the potential of cross-disciplinary research in creating new knowledge and offering new perspectives, but also highlighted some of the challenges such collaborations can pose.
During the group working sessions we spent much time talking to other researchers to find out how their disciplines, in particular those that were the least familiar to us, could potentially contribute to the study of a particular area. My own interest was in how scientists could contribute to research in the environmental history of architecture, landscapes and urbanism. My research is in the history of environmental design in architecture, but I am also a trained architect with a specialism in low-energy design and technology. In my research in the history of environmental technology I have included analyses of past measured data and reconstructions of historic experiments. Without these it is not possible to fully understand the role of the natural sciences in the development of environmental design and technologies. This is driving my interest in working with engineers and scientists to study past environmental technologies. Questions that I explored during the workshop with other participants included: How could scientists, such as chemists or meteorologists, help to develop a deeper understanding of the atmospheric and climatic conditions to which people were exposed inside buildings during the 19th century? How could collaborations between historians and scientist facilitate new insight into how atmospheric pollution affected levels of daylight and sunlight in cities? How did such change in light level affect people, plants or animals?
Over the course of the work ideas for collaborative research projects and research teams were constantly evolving. Numerous tentative ideas were explored with different groups of researchers before settling one or two final proposals. The research teams were not static but reformed several times as tentative proposals developed in response to further conversations with other workshop attendants. Once we had found one possible team, were encouraged to break up and to engage with other participants, keeping open opportunities to discover new and unexpected links with other disciplines.
During the final group working session on the third day I found a team and we developed a clear outline for a project to be developed into a full research proposal after the workshop. I worked with an geologist and a classicist to develop a proposal for a research project looking into the climatic conditions of enclosed spaces and how these were affected by developments in technology, advances in the natural sciences or by the availability of natural resources.
Having developed an outline for a collaborative research project, we are looking forward to developing a detailed proposal over the next few months. This will be submitted to the AHRC as part of an application for an ‘AHRC Innovation Award’.
This is one of a series of guest blog posts. 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. More information about the AHRC Science in Culture Theme ECR Workshop on the Lived Environment is available here. Follow us on Twitter @AHRCSciculture for updates from the Theme.