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Practical humanities need interdisciplinary collaboration

If research impact is not so much a case of direct collision but rather a series of ripple effects, it usually happens through other people.

A traditional route for academic impact is through publications, and much of societal impact also happens through texts, such as policy briefs and popular media. Another familiar – but too often overlooked – path to impact is created through teaching in different settings.

Colleagues, students, and other people interested in your work pick up your ideas and research results and transform them to their own purposes. Their work gets picked up by next group of people, and so it goes, onward and outward.

If you happen to be an academic eager to take a more active role in influencing how, where, and when your work gets picked up, you are probably interested in some kind of collaboration with others.

When we talk about societal impact, collaboration often refers to engagement with companies, NGOs, museums, advocacy groups, media, and other interested parties outside academia. But equally important is collaboration with colleagues from other disciplines and fields of research. I have come to think that this is particularly true for creating impact from research in the humanities.

There are different ways universities can support interdisciplinary collaboration.

Thematic institutes and interdisciplinary research units are an obvious example but require long-term strategic investment.

Another way is to offer seed funding that is specifically targeted at interdisciplinary teams, but there the challenge is that the money easily goes to people who already have mutual connections and work together. On its own, a mere funding mechanism is unlikely to incite new interdisciplinary contacts.

University of Michigan (U-M) is looking to achieve just that by its new research initiative, aimed to spur interdisciplinary collaboration.

Bold Challenges is a strategic endeavor to integrate social and technical sciences and match U-M’s research strengths with global challenges and related research priorities. The initiative consists of six research themes, each addressing a specific societal challenge clustered from the intersections of equity, health, infrastructure, and sustainability.

The initiative involves a funding component, but it doesn’t just stop there. Rather, it is a comprehensive framework of facilitated support in four distinct phases. Starting with idea generation, the program supports participants in their team building efforts, and through the refining of their research approach all the way to full-scale project development.

At the end of the program, the teams are ready to competitively pursue more large-scale funding for their projects. In addition, a team will have produced a white paper to promote their approach and its significance to policy makers, funding agencies, and other interested stakeholders. Throughout the program, the teams benefit from support in contacting external partners, writing funding proposals, and preparing the white paper and disseminating it to stakeholders.

This week, I had the honor of participating in the first Bold Challenges pollination workshop, centered around the challenge of Better Health Outcomes through Better Built Environments. The participants – most of whom didn’t know each other from before – came from diverse areas of research, including healthcare policy, health education, population studies, sociology, urban planning, mobility, architecture, art and design, environmental engineering, and various other branches of environmental studies.

The many inspiring discussions during the workshop showed that the topic of health in connection with built environment incorporates a range of questions that are relevant to the humanities.

For example;

  • How has a city structure and its residents’ access to services been historically formed?
  • What are the cultural distinctions and biases between different neighborhoods and how can we overcome them?
  • How do gender and race, for instance, make a difference in how people inhabit and experience their built environment?
  • What is the language we use to talk about health, and how does that influence the offer of health services?
  • And what kinds of cultural determinants are there to our seemingly individual health behaviors?

All the above can be fundamental research questions in their own right. But they could also very well offer novel solutions to urban planning, housing solutions, or public transportation. Rather than do it alone, the best way to go about developing those solutions is to do it in collaboration with colleagues from engineering, architecture, and healthcare policy.

The opposite is also true: experts in these other fields can develop better solutions if they make sure that their team has the right expertise to attend to questions of history, culture, and communication.

The workshop was instructive also in its methodology. The first round of discussions centered around topics that were generated from the participants individual interests. The second round, however, concentrated on just those particular interests. The difference in outcome was noticeable.

When we started from the lowest common denominator, the research ideas remained abstract and general. But when we started from specific questions stemming from concrete problems, it was exhilarating how those questions started to get amplified as participants with different expertise brought in their own specific perspectives.

Lesson learned? Never underestimate seemingly small questions. They can lead to significant breakthroughs, especially if you choose to work on them with other people.

Photo: Brett Sayles by Pexels