Working together for better outcomes: Lessons for funders, researchers, and researcher partners

By Kit Macleod

Kit Macleod (biography)

As a community of interdisciplinary practice we need to share our collective knowledge on how funders, researchers and wider research partners can work together for better outcomes to address pressing societal challenges.

Funding interdisciplinary research: improving practices and processes

Seven key challenges to funding interdisciplinary research include:

  1. No agreed criteria defining ‘excellence’ in interdisciplinary research.
  2. Poor agreement of the benefits and costs of interdisciplinary ways of working.
  3. No agreement on how much or what kind of additional funding support is required for interdisciplinary research.
  4. No consensus on terminology.
  5. No clearly delineated college of peers from which to select appropriate reviewers.
  6. Limited appropriate interdisciplinary peer review processes.
  7. Restrictions within funding organisations concerning budget allocations and support for interdisciplinary research.

A guidance note for research funders then suggests ways forward from the pre-call stage to evaluation of completed research projects.

Good practices for interdisciplinary researchers

A separate guide for interdisciplinary researchers highlights the essential attributes and support required for successful interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, at the individual, team and research environment levels.

For example, at the individual level useful attributes include respect for different perspectives, and a willingness to learn from others. Working in teams is easier, and group chemistry stronger, when personalities, values, beliefs and motives are – or become – compatible. At the research environment level, a supportive environment and organisational culture enables researchers to work to their strengths, and recognises that interdisciplinary research takes longer and, by nature, involves sharing of credit.

Key challenges and barriers to interdisciplinary working include departmental boundaries and other structures that can inhibit interactions. The guide finishes with a list of factors for success, for example, researchers should relish being outside their disciplinary comfort zone.

The role of research partnerships

A third guidance note written for partners who are not themselves researchers suggests the following values and principles for participating in research projects addressing complex societal challenges. Values that can help deliver successful collaborations include: respect for different viewpoints and other sources of knowledge, and being flexible and open to different ways of doing things. Principles that can help deliver successful collaborations include: engage, commit, build trust, advocate, communicate, participate, build capacity, reflect and ask questions, deliver, share outputs, and review and evaluate.

In addition to setting out general requirements for collaboration, for example, collaboration needs to be well facilitated to allow people to ‘open up’ and share issues, we provide a checklist of questions and actions from the pre-collaboration stage to after collaboration to help in the achievement of more successful collaborations.

The process of producing the guides

These three short guidance notes resulted from a workshop in March 2015, when 36 colleagues dedicated to enabling, doing and using the outputs from interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research gathered for two days to share their expertise.

Do these guides resonate with your experiences? Have you found them useful in your work?

Biography: Kit Macleod is a researcher based at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland. He is also a research fellow at the University of Dundee, and a research associate of the Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (a joint initiative between the University of Dundee and the James Hutton Institute). He has a passion for improving how we work together for better outcomes.

Workshop co-organisers with Kit Macleod were Katrin Prager, Mags Currie and Sue Morris at the James Hutton Institute. Laura Meagher, Colin Campbell and John Rowan formed the steering committee. Funding was provided by the Macaulay Development Trust.

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