Our guest blogger, Paul Benneworth is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS), part of the Institute for Innovation and Governance Studies at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Here, he sheds light on ways that researchers can fruitfully work together.
As an economic geography researcher at a technical university with the slogan “High Tech, Human Touch”, being able to work with technology is vital to my current job. Europe’s flagship Horizon 2020 programme has likewise moved to integrate social sciences and humanities research into multidisciplinary consortia directed towards ‘grand challenges’. But learned societies across Europe have sounded an alarm that in this rush for multidisciplinarity: a concern with technical questions in science, technology engineering and maths (STEM) is undermining meaningful research in social sciences and humanities (SSH). So how can researchers ensure that multidisciplinary collaborations with STEM researchers give SSH researchers more than decorative or translation roles?
There are prestige hierarchies between disciplines in science. Some kinds of research, typically experimental, deductive, and extensive, give answers with a much higher apparent certainty than hermeneutic, reflective, intensive studies. Scientists are good at helping water boards predict if their levees are going to collapse, and certainly they can help give engineers the certainty they need to plan their water management business. But social scientists are much less certain in helping water boards to predict whether citizens will accept new water protection proposals, including flood defence strengthening, turning farmland into water retention ponds, or allowing more regular flooding. This is reflected in STEM subjects typically having more prestige than SSH subjects
Multidisciplinary research consortia dealing with the ‘grand challenges’ (such as flooding) often choose to work towards certain answers to concrete questions. That can be great for ‘hard’ STEM scientists researching within their comfort zone towards apparently certain answers and breakthroughs. But for social scientists and humanities scholars it can be disastrous when channelled to ask the ‘how can we make society accept this technology?’ question. If you are professionally interested in social justice, then it’s frustrating to be prevented from asking just who benefits from these proposed technological interventions, and whether they make society a ‘better place’ as a whole. Smart Grids are neat, but solving fuel poverty won’t come through configuring ‘pro-sumers’. The Wikipedia ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ page is a monument to senseless technological solutions to societal non-problems. This provides a perfect metaphor for where multidisciplinary research and H2020 may be heading: not building a smart, sustainable future but just technologically flashy dead ends.
So how can we ensure that SSH researchers can have their voices heard to produce societally as well as scientifically optimal results? In recently published research (Link behind a paywall) with colleagues at universities in Valencia (UV and UPV), we have been studying another kind of co-operation with strong prestige asymmetries: between scientists and research users. We found collaborations most effective when partners on both ‘sides’ could influence different research choices: setting questions, planning the research or disseminating findings. What was important was not just contact between researchers and practitioners but allowing both ‘sides’ to meaningfully influence the decisions taken. Plenty of symbolic user engagement involves ‘consultation’ or discussion, but to really involve users, you need to let them express views on what matters. Likewise, users dominating the choices is bad for science, but engaging deliberatively with them doesn’t lead to inferior research: indeed, as some have argued (see ‘Knowledge for Theory and Practice’ and ‘Bridging the Rigour-Relevance gap in Management Research’ – Links behind a paywall), it actually allows you to do more rigorous, relevant research.
Getting meaningful deliberative engagement by users is not easy; if you ask users which questions they want addressed, they often state short-term questions whose answers will immediately benefit them, offering no progressive value to the scientific state-of-the-art. Conversely, offering cut-and-dried choices between your ‘excellent’ questions reduces practitioners to second-rate decision-makers, ignoring their own expertise to enhance the research’s overall scope, excellence and impact. Practices that create these co-deliberative moments in research decision making are important here. That might involve sitting down with contacts to talk about an inspiring idea; to plan a survey together; to jointly carry out the research; or to ask them to respond to your findings. In this discursive process of taking well informed, mutual research choices you build respect for each other’s knowledge and expertise, and hence build research projects bigger than the sum of their parts.
These arguments are equally applicable to multidisciplinary projects where SSH researchers find themselves being asked to make very limited choices around research decisions taken exclusively by the ‘real’ (i.e. STEM researchers). The key challenge for multidisciplinary research involving in SSH and STEM researchers is building a mutual respect for each other’s expertise and knowledge resources, as a basis for co-decision making. Continually asking what unique knowledge and expertise our partners in other disciplines are putting into and getting out of a multidisciplinary research project is an essential habit for us all if we are to solve the grand challenges and not get stuck on ‘Bridges to Nowhere’.
About the author: Paul Benneworth’s research focuses on the relationships between universities and society in a variety of domains, the public value of research, high-technology entrepreneurship or students as knowledge exchange agents. He was co-ordinator of the HERA ERANET Joint Research Programme HERAVALUE, measuring the public value of arts and humanities research: for that reason, he tweets as @heravalue.
Image credits: COD Newsroom, 2014, [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr