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The UIIN conference provided us with food for thought about the future of universities and the tools that we can use to enhance the impact of our institutions. Interdisciplinary collaboration was certainly a hot topic this year. In this edition of our Conference Conversations, we bring you insights on how to foster this collaboration that breaks down disciplinary silos.
The following insights come from the panel discussion Building Strategic Partnerships in STEM & SSH, highlighting key learnings from Kelly Sexton (University of Michigan), Emma Salgård Cunha (University of Cambridge), Robert Giezendanner-Thoben (EPFL) and Adam Szigeti (Siemens Evosoft).
Interdisciplinary collaboration – how to foster partnerships between STEM and SSH
Whilst valorisation and commercialisation efforts might traditionally be associated more with STEM disciplines, there are masses of untapped potential in interdisciplinary collaboration. However, academics within social science and humanities (SSH) are often sceptical of commercialisation and partnerships. These academics, especially the younger generation, show a greater willingness to transform their theoretical knowledge into practical action and collaborate with industry, particularly when these activities are framed as opportunities for creating tangible impact. With this in mind, it is necessary to develop a sustainable model for interdisciplinary research collaboration, so academics can create the societal impact they want to have at scale.
By bringing researchers and industry professionals together to share challenges, we can begin to understand how academia can support these challenges in the real world” – Robert Giezendanner-Thoben
Technology is an example of an intervention point where this interdisciplinary collaboration is vital. With the rise of AI and other disruptive technologies, we have a crucial need for humane skill expertise in policy, ethics, and acceptability as well as inclusive design which can be provided by SSH researchers. However, sometimes the problem with these collaborations is that the SSH professor is brought in last minute as the ‘wrapper’ for a tech project. Therefore, in order to create fruitful collaborations where all parties feel respected and valued, and to reap true impact from interdisciplinary, SSH researchers need to be brought on board early and integrated into every stage of the project.
It is important to give our researchers the tools to understand where the university can really support them in building these partnerships” – Emma Salgård Cunha
The role of proximity
Many universities take a local ecosystem approach when they are developing partnerships, especially within STEM. This proximity helps with the efficient sharing of human and physical resources. However, collaborations in SSH tend to have different needs and requirements, and therefore different geographies. STEM disciplines rely on physical resources and lab space, whereas SSH partnerships can be clustered around facilities like policy institutes and museums but are less constrained by physical space. Many social scientists prioritise global research and impact, often forging partnerships with international counterparts rather than focusing solely on local collaborations within the value chain. Our panellists emphasised that when building relationships with partners who are far away, it is important to not start with frameworks and contracts, but to get to know each other by entering into consistent dialogue and taking visits to each other.
In summary, interdisciplinary collaboration between STEM and SSH disciplines holds significant potential for creating societal impact from our strategic partnerships. To fully harness this potential, foster a sense of ownership by involving researchers from the relevant disciplines early in the project. Ultimately, for collaboration to thrive, whether it is within the local ecosystem or on a global scale, it must be a win-win situation for all involved parties.
Interested in more insights like this?
If you enjoyed this discussion, you might like to listen to our podcast episode Research Valorisation – Overcoming Valorisation Challenges in the Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts.
External Engagement & Industry Partnerships: Developing enduring strategic partnerships with industry provides far greater and more sustainable value to universities than taking a more transactional approach that leads to one-off research projects or licensing arrangements. But so often, universities are not at a necessary state of ‘readiness’ and struggle to approach external partners strategically.
Tasha Day is a Project officer at UIIN, where she undertakes research activities and creates content on a wide variety of topics including entrepreneurship education, sustainability and research valorisation. Tasha has an Msc in Urban Geography, has worked in urban sustainability and placemaking, and is interested in how universities can be at the forefront of the transition from an extractive to regenerative and sustainable economy.