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Co-creation needed on bids to UKRI cross-council scheme

Last year, UK Research and Innovation launched the first round of a pilot scheme for interdisciplinary projects that are not routinely funded through its responsive-mode schemes.

With up to £65 million to disburse across two rounds, and around 36 awards in each, the scheme was a clear statement of intent from UKRI to better serve researchers looking to work in an interdisciplinary way.

The second round will open on 2 September, with a deadline of 19 November for outline applications. The basic funding parameters remain unchanged from the first round—projects can have a full economic cost of between £200,000 and £1.2m (funded at 80 per cent by UKRI) and run for up to two years.

Even though the scheme will not open for weeks, many researchers are already working up bids. For them and others thinking of joining the fray, UKRI held a webinar in May to pass on lessons from the first round’s bids. Here are the three key points.

1. Genuinely interdisciplinary projects should feel emboldened

The webinar began with a reminder that this scheme has been designed to minimise the barriers that interdisciplinary projects often have to overcome, even in schemes that are badged as ‘interdisciplinary’.

Alex Amey, strategic lead for interdisciplinary responsive mode programmes at UKRI, highlighted the risk of “death by a thousand cuts”, where “reviewers who are only confident in one discipline will consider the whole proposal as flawed if that part is not cutting edge [or] make judgments on the proposal without understanding the synergy and importance of the interdisciplinary aspects”.

To circumvent this, the scheme does not have an external peer review stage. Instead, bids will be reviewed by members of an interdisciplinary assessment college recruited by UKRI. This college is composed of people with “experience of interdisciplinary research, either through directly undertaking it or supporting interdisciplinary researchers”, Amey said.

The goal is that applicants championing excellent inter-disciplinary projects can find favour here without engaging in the finicky grantsmanship techniques they might otherwise deploy to win through in mono-disciplinary-minded schemes.

2. Interdisciplinarity means integration

The most important question: ‘What is interdisciplinary research?’ Amey reminded the webinar attendees of the central eligibility requirements in this regard. All projects should cover multiple disciplines within the remit of at least two research councils, she said, and there should be “no clear lead” in terms of disciplinary focus.

She stressed that with genuinely interdisciplinary projects, “there will be integration of disciplines across and within work packages, rather than [having] individual disciplines address separate work packages”. She warned applicants: “If your application’s work packages can be easily separated into the remits of different research councils, your application may not be considered interdisciplinary by the assessors.”

This theme of disciplinary integration being at the core of a competitive proposal was developed further by scheme consultant Catherine Lyall, emerita professor of science and public policy at the University of Edinburgh. Lyall said “good interdisciplinary proposals will explicitly state what the applicants mean by integration and why this is the right type of integration given the purpose of the research. Conversely, poor research proposals will see integration as something that happens automatically, by itself, simply as a natural byproduct of bringing scholars together to work on the same topic.”

Integrated interdisciplinary research necessitates an approach founded on co-creation, Lyall said, and evaluators “will want to know that the research problem has been jointly formulated, not simply produced by a principal investigator who’s then brought in a few additional disciplines to the problem”.

Applicants should not shy away from the challenging practical and project management aspects of integrated interdisciplinary research, Lyall added.

She said weaker proposals to the scheme’s first round “often failed to acknowledge the very real challenges that interdisciplinary working can bring…and had not provided sufficient indication that the teams had the ability to work together and address these collaborative challenges”.

3. Understand ‘reciprocity’

Reviews of bids to the scheme’s first round showed that several applicants had not understood the nature of the “reciprocity” of benefits for each discipline UKRI requires, Lyall said. “What we’re looking for is some indication that there will be a lasting impact on the disciplines contributing to the research,” she clarified.

Reciprocity does not neces-sarily imply equal benefits in a quantitative sense, she said, but more that each contributing discipline gains something significant from the collaboration. Lyall said that applicants should remember to provide evidence of this, via definite examples “rather than some vague aspirations of lasting impact”. 

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