This is a guest blog by Dr Carina Fearnley, Aberystwyth University, a participant in the ECR Workshop on ‘The Lived Environment’.
As an interdisciplinary researcher I am used to feeling isolated. Ironically whilst the ability to translate your work across disciplines is a valuable and rewarding part of my research, often there are many battles and decisions to be made over who will listen to my research, who are my audience, who can I successfully work with, where do I publish, and how can I do this work in an effective and productive manner? Sometimes it feels like being a square peg constantly trying to fit into a round hole and this makes the valuable research done by interdisciplinary scholars a whole lot more challenging than for those working in just one established discipline. Why do we do it? Because many of the worlds greatest problems right now are only going to solved if we bring together different expertise, experience, and excitement.
I suddenly felt less alone when I arrived at the AHRC early career researcher workshop under the Science in Culture theme of The Lived Environment from 19-21st May. The Royal Society seemed an apt location, full of pioneers, both historical and present, working across and beyond disciplines to push the boundaries of science. It is also here that many clashes between science and culture have occurred both in talks, publications and debates including Thomas Huxley, Charles Darwin, and of course the first female fellows Kathleen Lonsdale and Marjory Stephenson. In this space the successful attendees gathered wondering what would come of the next two days. Expertly facilitated by Samantha Aspinall, the ice was soon broken when many of us realised we all felt varying levels of isolation and now there was no excuse, we could meet other early career researchers that not only struggle with the same issues, but are passionate and excited about doing innovative research.
The workshop had three areas of focus. The first was to give us tips and advice on putting together interdisciplinary research projects, along with the nuts and bolts of how to put proposals together, through to how to run the project and perspectives from projects operating at differing scales. Presentations by current AHRC funded researchers provided insights into international projects, working with the government, and shaping people’s practices and public engagement. An extended session focused on how grant proposals are assessed and funded was enlightening – much like learning the marking criteria when writing an essay, providing some perspectives that we all madly scribbled notes over. This session triggered a debate about the challenges of funding and reviewing interdisciplinary proposal as it becomes clear that differing research councils still have differing practices but are successfully making steps forward to facilitate this type of research.
The second area of focus was networking, both with fellow attendees, but also a number of invited speakers and guests throughout the social events. This included key people working in interdisciplinary projects, publishing, and public engagement, and ended with the delightful Steve Cross providing us with some interdisciplinary humour at the conference dinner reflecting on the challenges of science in culture and researching across disciplines. Networking and getting to know one another was a giant task as there were so many of us, but I was particularly impressed by the various tools used to aid this process. From post it note adverts calling for fellow minded researchers interested in particular things (including complexity to garages to deep time), to a stellar introduction presentation and poster that also gave us the opportunity to share our interests and find like minded researchers – it was like speed dating for researchers. Throughout the two and half days I think I spoke to most people, albeit some only briefly, but it was great to have some of those really in depth conversations, share ideas, thoughts and seek new collaborators. These activities set up for the third focus – preparing for the closed call.
With all the new relationships being set up, all the new information and advice, we were all there to foster and forge new projects to submit to the closed call. Now any early career researcher is keen to take advantage of a closed call, given that funding is so competitive these days, but to be in a situation where this call is specifically for interdisciplinary research is akin to being a child in a sweet shop. Frantically we all had to find our future collaborators, devise a project, as well as explore multiple projects and ideas. To be honest this was exhausting, but highly rewarding. At the end of the workshop most people had formed at least one firm project group and ideas and again this was in part due to the excellent techniques of our guide, to change groups, explore new projects and advertise these on our ‘wall’ (with the post-it notes and the posters).
It was an exhausting couple of days, but it was intensely rewarding and enriching. I came away with a load of advice, a notebook full of ideas, new friends and potential collaborators, and a few great project ideas to follow up on. When an early career researcher is usually tied up with teaching marking, and various administrative roles it really was an absolute joy to be given the time to be creative, to explore, and to do some blue skies thinking and research. I hope very much this will be the future of research, especially if we are to address all those complex problems.
Finally I hope we can keep the momentum built using various social media and feel it would be really beneficial if we could have a follow up meeting to see how we did post the projects, along with sharing our methodologies and findings. There is no doubt that interdisciplinary work is challenging, but we all recognise the need to establish good quality work, that is impactful and policy relevant, and to do this means going beyond our first gathering, to explore not just what we achieved, but how we did it and build our group or ‘class’ into a project in itself on interdisciplinary work.
Many thanks to AHRC and the team for such an enjoyable and fruitful workshop and here’s to a non-isolated and bright future!
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.