Supporting excellent interdisciplinary research, November 2019

What do we need to do to support excellent interdisciplinary research among academic and heritage organisations?

The November 2019 NHSF member meeting focused on the ‘Excellent Research’ strand of the Strategic Framework for Heritage Science in the UK and in particular, the desired outcome of ‘an environment that supports interdisciplinary research’.

Co-convenor of the NHSF research working group, Prof. May Cassar opened the meeting and highlighted the recent publication by UKRI of the findings of its research and innovation infrastructure programme in which the strategic framework for heritage science is referenced. The assessment of the current and future infrastructure landscape will be used to prioritise where investment could achieve a step-change in the UK’s research and innovation capability. This provides both the context and opportunity for the heritage science community to think about what is needed to ensure excellent heritage science research.

A member discussion session was informed by four think pieces that explored different aspects of the environment for interdisciplinary research:

  • Cross disciplinary and cross institutional collaboration - Prof. Heather Viles (University of Oxford)
  • Funding structures and grant management - Prof. David Watkinson (Cardiff University)
  • Availability of and access to infrastructure - Prof. Carl Heron (British Museum)
  • Institutional priorities - Prof. Jane Henderson (Cardiff University)

Key points from the 10 minutes think pieces:

Cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional collaboration

Heritage science research is intrinsically interdisciplinary this makes it both frustrating and exciting; and when it’s inter-institutional there is extra complexity.

Three major challenges of heritage science collaboration are:

  • Conceptual – consider what makes a good research question and what makes a good answer.
  • Linguistic – important to use a shared language and vocabulary; this should not be under-estimated. Inter-personal relationships are key and there is need for better understanding of how people in different domains work.
  • Resource – often need to collaborate to leverage resource; but need resource in order to collaborate.

To strengthen cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional collaboration we need: networking; strong shared leadership (heritage, industry, academy); participation (involve everyone in everything).

Funding structures and grant management

To successfully navigate the funding structures for interdisciplinary research and manage grants, it is important to:

  • Understand the partners and why they are collaborating; and build an effective collaboration before embarking on a grant application or funding bid.
  • Understand that research doesn’t bring income, but costs money.
  • Define outcomes at the beginning to which partners are able to sign-up and deliver.
  • Be flexible and understand each other’s needs and that projects may not go to plan.
  • Think practically – who owns equipment at the end, who pays when things go wrong, who owns IP, how are names listed on published papers.

Research infrastructures

The UKRI assessment for BEIS (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) of research and innovation infrastructure includes major references to heritage science, including case studies. The infrastructure challenges we need to consider are:

  • Skills and training – how to develop the staff who run the kit in the organisations that hold it.
  • Data management and access – significant infrastructure requirements.
  • Sustainability – mis-match between infrastructures being long-term but short-term funding of them.
  • We need to be aware of the hidden costs of accessing infrastructure (staff time, insurance, transport)

Heritage science needs to focus on its ‘grand challenges’ and articulate the priorities for the community; this is the context for infrastructure requirements and growth of research and innovation capability.

Institutional priorities

Gaining institutional support for heritage science as a priority is a two-way process that involves:

  • Understanding the top-level priorities (of the institution, of partners), going to the meetings to understand concerns (even when not immediately relevant) and talk about heritage science and how it aligns to priorities.
  • Always looking for where priorities intersect and overlap.
  • Making the case for heritage science in terms of its value and the excitement it brings (rather than process).
  • Appealing to intellectual, organisational and emotional needs and creating a ‘satisfied customer’ in terms of a partner’s encounter with heritage science.

This is all easier to do in certain times than in an unstable operating environment. In the latter it’s important to appeal to a broader agenda. In the current uncertain times, the heritage science community would benefit from making sure that it is asking good and relevant research questions; questions that connect to wider social concerns.

Discussion session

The member discussion session was inspired by the four think pieces and Chaired by co-convenor Constantina Vlachou. Members raised the following topics:

  • A need to address the career development opportunities of heritage scientists – available jobs at an appropriate salary, with job security. Collaborate in employment? (create shared employment opportunities between organisations). [NB: this topic is addressed by the 'Skilled and Diverse Communities' strand of the strategic framework]
  • Profile the profession. Understand succession issues. Carry out research in partnership with another organisation, such as Icon and Historic Environment Scotland (both NHSF members). [NB: this topic is addressed by the 'Skilled and Diverse Communities' strand of the strategic framework]
  • Co-creation of research questions is important; and there is a need for better recognition of the value of co-creation. It was suggested that co-creation is increasingly common, particularly since the creation of Independent Research Organisations.
  • Support for the point about ensuring wider social relevance when defining research questions, and the need to extend networks to support this.
  • Staffing and funding are key (in order to support access to research infrastructure, especially equipment).

NHSF research working group action plan

The strategic framework identifies four outcome areas for the Excellent Research strand. NHSF has carried out mapping of work that is going on across the sector to deliver these outcomes and this is captured in the delivery plan (this was circulated to attendees in advance of the meeting). The delivery plan is an iterative document that will evolve as people continue to contribute information on their work (to NHSF, or through the online noticeboard).

From the initial mapping, Forum trustees have identified areas that NHSF can contribute to. Three areas have been prioritised for action in 2019-20 and these are the current focus of the NHSF resources working group. The actions and the next steps that are proposed as a result of this member meeting are summarised below:

  1. Action: Commission a review of existing data on heritage science research funding sources and make it available as a resource for others building arguments to support the development of, and access to, funding streams.
  • Next steps: Prioritise this action. Prepare a brief to cover a review of both UK and EU sources of funding (not just the big funders). Understand the current funding landscape to inform future needs and impact.
  1. Action: Collate evidence of the inter- and multi-disciplinary nature of heritage science research through case studies that demonstrate clear public value.
  • Next steps: Initiate an open call for contributions to a Google Doc and work with the NHSF Impact working group on the demonstration of social and economic value.
  1. Action: Champion FAIR principles for the collection and management of heritage science data. Implement the recommendations from the Feb 2019 event on FAIR data, including the extension of the NHSF Gold Open Access fund to support data deposit.
  • Next steps: Update the action and delivery plan to record the Feb19 workshop. Propose to NHSF trustees that the Gold Open Access fund be extended to support data deposit. If approved, research criteria for funding open access deposit of data.

Chair’s summary

Professor Nigel Llewellyn (Chair of the Board of Trustees) summarised key points from the presentations and discussion. He concluded that the heritage science community is at a turning point with many elements of what we need to do to support excellent interdisciplinary research understood, some already in place, and other opportunities on the horizon.

The Forum exists to enable organisations to work together. Take away points from the discussion at this meeting include:

  • Can the Forum take steps to facilitate inter-personal as well as inter-institutional research partnerships?
  • Can the Forum help break the chicken-and-egg problem around the need to show that there are proven research partnerships in order to secure funds when funds are needed to establish the partnerships in the first place?
  • It is essential that the Forum find ways of identifying the Grand Challenges for heritage science.
  • Given the likelihood of the UK having to leave the EU, can the Forum find ways to offset the damage represented by the loss of Horizon Europe?
  • The claim that the needs for heritage science will only become clear once society is clear what it expects from heritage itself.
  • Can the Forum work with others to address issues relating to salaries, career progression and job security and succession?
  • Can the Forum support or facilitate the development of research opportunities for a wider research community in the smaller museums and heritage institutions?