Opening new frontiers through deep collaboration between science and humanities

Interdisciplinarity requires proper collaboration to ensure integration of knowledge

There has been a flowering of studies in neuroscience over recent years, many of which involve brain imaging being performed on subjects reading literature

Trinity College Dublin researcher Amelia McConville has grown used to getting blank looks at social occasions when she explains her PhD. The Dubliner's thesis isn't your typical academic study neatly fitting into one discipline. Instead she writes about contemporary poetry through the lens of neuroscience – an approach that bridges two very different fields of knowledge.

The combination might strike some as unusual, but McConville is one of a growing number of scholars using cognitive theory to consider the reception of literary texts. She points to the flowering of studies in the field over recent years, many of which involve brain imaging being performed on subjects reading literature.

“The environment you get in these scientific experiments is totally at odds with how people would usually read poems. It’s fascinating to see how people respond to things in an MRI machine, but is that a natural way of approaching a creative work?

“What I’m doing is thinking about the actual value of applying models of cognition to poetry. Can it tell us anything new or does it just use science to reaffirm what we already know?”


McConville's Irish Research Council-funded project specifically looks at what neuroscience can tell us about readers' encounters with visual works by experimental poets like Susan Howe, bpNichol and Derek Beaulieu. There's often a tension between the verbal and visual experiences of reading these poems – a dynamic she examines in conversation with scientific theories of the mind.

It's uncharted territory for both her and her supervisors, Philip Coleman of the school of English and Mani Ramaswami from the Trinity Institute of Neuroscience.

“Neurohumanities is quite a new field, but we have a college-wide network of researchers who are doing work in the area now. I find it really encouraging to see science and the arts being brought together in so many productive ways,” she says.

Interdisciplinarity – research drawing on two or more academic disciplines – is a buzzword in universities these days. But it involves more than just bringing together researchers from different departments, with each discipline working independently around a common interest. What interdisciplinarity requires is proper collaboration between these distinct fields in a way that integrates knowledge.

One policy paper identifies as many as 25 factors that influence whether interdisciplinary collaboration succeeds

It’s not hard to see its appeal: few things exist in a silo, and approaching a topic from diverse perspectives is usually wise. However, there are still significant barriers to working across disciplines, not least when it comes to including the arts and humanities.

Reward systems

One persistent problem is that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects are seen as better suited to confronting pressing societal problems. Even in interdisciplinary projects AHSS (arts, humanities and social sciences) specialists tend not to set the key research questions, often being assigned to auxiliary tasks like public dissemination.

Then there’s the fact that academic reward systems mostly privilege work done within disciplinary structures. Interdisciplinary researchers can find it more difficult to secure funding and be published in high-impact journals, blocking their career progression.

A major EU-funded project has been working to address such challenges, producing a series of informational guides along with reports drawing on a survey of European researchers and interviews with policymakers and funders. The research makes clear that joined-up thinking depends on individual as well as institutional actions.

One policy paper identifies as many as 25 factors that influence whether interdisciplinary collaboration succeeds, ranging from academic worldviews and communication skills to research assessment and funding.

SHAPE-ID began life at the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute in early 2019 in collaboration with a number of European partners, and this past summer launched a toolkit that aims to help researchers, funders and higher education bodies develop and support collaborative approaches.

The toolkit also provides case studies of innovative research being done across the EU. Featured projects include the "River Time" initiative, which uses art and philosophy to think differently about time, and the Atlas of Holocaust Literature, a digital map of the Warsaw Ghetto created by academics from digital humanities, cartography and Holocaust studies.

A particularly ambitious collaboration, RURITAGE, is assessing how natural and cultural heritage can drive rural regeneration, with research being contributed by 38 partners from 19 countries.

Such partnerships are central to the SHAPE-ID vision of interdisciplinary research, which imagines an academic landscape freed from both national and disciplinary boundaries. Indeed the project's findings and recommendations build on conversations held at 14 workshops and webinars, where stakeholders from across Europe discussed the importance of interdisciplinarity in thinking about artificial intelligence, sustainable urban transformation and the environment among other issues.

Global crisis

SHAPE-ID's first webinar after the outbreak of Covid considered what AHSS can contribute in times of global crisis – the need for "an all-of-society response to an all-of-society problem", in the words of panellist Daniel Carey, a professor at NUI Galway.

Former project manager Doireann Wallace is adamant about the value of the arts and humanities in tackling the world's most urgent challenges.

There is a recognition that interdisciplinarity is the way to go in providing novel solutions to big problems

“These are disciplines that see human meaning-making activities in very sensitive and nuanced ways. They question our values and are attuned to power relations: to who benefits from dominant narratives or strategies. That can complicate things when you’re trying to design solution-oriented research, but it should be an important part of the process if you want to get to grips with the complexity of current problems.”

Jennifer Edmond, associate professor of digital humanities at TCD, says such collaboration is particularly crucial in dealing with technological innovation. One of the projects she currently leads, called K-PLEX, looks at how humanities and cultural experts can help inform approaches to big data research.

“I think a lot of problems could be avoided by having a stronger culturally-sensitive voice embedded in the way we develop technologies,” she says. “The arts and humanities shouldn’t be seen as a break on science or technology, but rather as a contextual frame that can make research more innovative, and more aligned with the world around it.”

However, Edmond acknowledges there are many hurdles to be jumped as an academic working across different fields.

“There is a recognition that interdisciplinarity is the way to go in providing novel solutions to big problems, but that recognition often hits up against the scholarly establishments that we’ve built over centuries. We don’t know how to recruit or promote interdisciplinary researchers or even where to put them within institutions.”

Amelia McConville in Trinity College Dublin.

She has experienced frustration again and again in her own career as an interdisciplinary scholar – from having her methods dismissed to facing bureaucratic roadblocks even in registering PhD students under her supervision since doctoral candidates are expected to be associated with a single discipline.

Higher education

SHAPE-ID project partner Catherine Lyall, a professor of science and public policy at Edinburgh University, says interdisciplinary careers are far from normalised within higher education.

"We describe it in presentations as the 'paradox of interdisciplinarity', a term coined by the sociologist Peter Weingart. On the one hand you have interdisciplinary research being very much promoted within the policy literature, and by funders and policymakers, but on the other hand universities and research institutes are still largely geared towards single discipline structures. That's a big challenge for researchers who want to do this kind of work."

Lyall recognises AHSS scholars need to be clearer about the merit of their approaches. STEM researchers must also make a greater effort to communicate with colleagues from other disciplines, she believes.

“What’s clear is that there’s a real lack of understanding about what the arts and humanities have to offer. The message we’re trying to get across through the toolkit is that perspectives from these disciplines can bring so much value in terms of understanding human behaviour and understanding how problems can be framed in different ways.”

She says the future of innovative research depends on being able to have such conversations.

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