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Finding the right partners


What research officers can do to encourage interdisciplinarity

Horizon Europe, the EU’s €95.5 billion, seven-year research and innovation funding programme, prizes efforts to bring several disciplines together in the projects it funds. But, for various reasons, researchers in many areas may be unfamiliar with interdisciplinary working and face barriers to reaching out to connect with peers in other areas.

This is where research managers can step in, says Tobias Hermans, from Ghent University’s EU funding team. Here, he explains how.

What is your starting point for this topic?

I mainly work on Horizon Europe projects, and you see that in practice it’s still difficult to really get things going—not so much in terms of convincing researchers of the added value of interdisciplinarity, but making it work, finding the right partners and engaging with them in a way that makes the project work.

Why is this?

The first hurdle is that most researchers’ networks do not extend much beyond their discipline. And it’s not enough to find colleagues from different disciplines for Horizon Europe projects. Other European universities should be involved.

The second is a lack of self-confidence. Researchers can worry that although they are knowledgeable in their area of expertise, they don’t know much about the other areas in the call. They think they need to be an expert in all areas, but they don’t.

Finally, sometimes natural-sciences researchers find that the demand from the European Commission to include social sciences and humanities in a project can feel contrived or forced, and that dampens their enthusiasm to embark on the adventure that these projects are.

What does this mean for research managers?

If you’re good at finding the right partners and stimulating researchers’ confidence to reach out beyond their discipline, that’s a huge added value and it impacts the chances of success. That’s why, as a research management or support office, you need to have some strategies in place to help researchers with that specific element of Horizon Europe proposals.

What are those strategies?

As a team, you need to identify your strengths. Here at Ghent University, an expansion of the EU team enabled us to add profiles from different disciplines. For example, I have a PhD in German literature, which gives me a foot in the door with researchers from social sciences and humanities, but my other colleagues come from physics, from bioengineering backgrounds, and so on. So we are an interdisciplinary team ourselves.

In addition, traditionally, research-support offices tend to be active on interdisciplinarity in the post-award phase, but it’s also important to invest time in creating an interdisciplinary mindset in the pre-award phase.

How so?

You need to involve researchers in what you’re doing, which can take a lot of energy without getting a lot of answers or replies. Still, you need to raise your visibility as a team. One of the main philosophies within our pre-award work is that we try to encourage researchers to look beyond the clusters they instinctively feel at home in. 

How do you try to involve researchers?

I mostly work on cluster-two projects [culture, creativity and inclusive society], and I write to researchers and tell them that there is an opportunity here. This requires a lot of manual research. Luckily, we have a colleague who’s made an automatic tool that makes a first selection of topics for researchers based on their publications.

Writing to researchers, who may come from every faculty, is a huge amount of work. It’s a very personal approach, but my impression is that people like it. I don’t always get a response, but sometimes it gets the conversation started. Researchers may think, ‘No, this is not for me’, but they get to know you and you get to know them. And in that sense, there’s never any effort lost. People become part of your network, they know you and you raise your visibility.

We also organise brainstorming sessions with our university and other institutions. With all these people around the table, we discuss what a good approach would be to building a consortium, what would be our idea, what would be our pitch, and so on. The hope is that this gets the fire going and researchers see that there are interesting people out there who complement what they are doing.

How applicable is this approach to smaller universities?

It is true that not everybody is in our position; at Ghent, the EU team alone has a staff of 30, so we can focus on the pre-award section. But regardless of the size, I would say that it is worth finding out what your strengths are and trying to experiment. If, like me, you write to a lot of researchers and don’t always get any response, don’t see things as a wasted effort. See everything as an opportunity to raise your visibility as a team, and to teach people about Horizon Europe, because a lot of researchers know less about it than you might think. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com