By Sara Shinton, Director, Future Leaders Fellows Development Network

Interdisciplinary research (IDR) runs through the UK’s research and innovation strategy, but close to a century after the term was first used we are still struggling as a sector to evaluate it. This blog summarises the key points from a recent FLFDN event on Interdisciplinary Peer Review and points to some helpful additional resources.

Although our session was focused on IDR Peer Review, we started with scene setting. Professor Barry Smith gave a whistle-stop tour of the policy landscape highlighting the “downward push” from BEIS for “a continued expansion in the conception of what research is and does” and how this underpins the UKRI Strategy. The highlights from the latest Budget show that research and innovation is a Government priority, with interdisciplinary research reflected in much of their language (see Barry’s slides for details).

Much interdisciplinary work is done by researchers with strong disciplinary bases and a clear sense of the value their IDR brings to their home discipline. However, this isn’t always an easy fit for traditional career paths and the impacts on interdisciplinary researchers have been widely reported (one example being the British Academy’s 2016 Crossing Paths project.) The Stern Review was prompted by concerns about the disadvantaging of IDR in REF2014 leading to changes to the 2021 REF with an Interdisciplinary Research Advisory Panel (IDAP), which Barry was a member of, providing expertise to ensure that “that IDR should be neither advantaged nor disadvantaged for assessment in the REF”.

To help promote better practice, REF 2021 included a definition of IDR (although it’s worth noting that IDR shouldn’t be considered to be “one thing” as it’s a term that covers many different approaches and activities). Institutional submissions also included a statement on how they were supporting IDR and you may learn something about your host by reading theirs! (The REF website includes a summary of their approach to IDR and a protocol for assessment.)

Our next speaker, Professor Patrick Haggard shared experience a panel chair and reviewer, giving us insights into the way interdisciplinarity is conveyed by effective proposal writers. He looks for

  • Evidence that the PI understands the added value of working with a broad team AND that it brings extra challenges (reflected in the project structure, communication and team cohesion activities)
  • Clear statements of added value of an IDR approach, including the value to the disciplines involved and what the partnerships will stimulate
  • The use of efficient signposting language to help home in on benefits (“added value” and “synergy” were two examples)
  • A deeper than “text book” knowledge of the disciplines in the partnership, providing evidence that the relationships are effective and have been built through genuine dialogue, listening and reframing
  • A compelling narrative (whilst being aware that as an IDR reviewer, you mustn’t get carried away by good writing)
  • Clear research questions which explain the need for IDR approaches, using schematics effectively to convey interrelationships succinctly

Underpinning much of this is respectful interaction between researchers with strong disciplinary identities. Patrick sees IDR strengthened when researchers act as guides for their collaborators, helping them to understand their expertise, being open to their perspectives and providing their own. A good IDR collaboration involves welcoming the “trespassers” whilst ensuring that there are benefits for all disciplines and partners.

As a reviewer, he warns that it takes more time to evaluate IDR as it will involve wider reading and reference checking. He has to be receptive to ideas outside his area of expertise and to invest in understanding them. He also had advice on the challenge many IDR reviewers face – feeling the limits of their knowledge don’t cover the work they evaluate. Funding bodies should ask reviewers for a statement about this and he is transparent, one example being finding it difficult to judge the degree of novelty in some fields.

Professor Catherine Lyall is an expert in IDR and brought insights from across the sector. Her publications include “Interdisciplinary Research Journeys” (2011, available on open access) and “Being an Interdisciplinary Academic” (2019). She spoke about what we mean by disciplines and how they are characterised and how this creates challenges for IDR as reviewers are often prone to pointing out disciplinary “weaknesses” rather than ID strengths. Added to this is that ID research goals are often different to disciplinary ones, requiring different research design and methods, but then they are subject to evaluation based on disciplinary models.

Catherine sees very little IDR peer review training from funders, but a motivated researcher can find a wealth of resources to help inform their approach. (Volkswagen Stiftung’s Freigest scheme and the Swiss National Science Foundation were applauded for good practice.)  The EU-funded SHAPE-ID project includes Guided Pathways to help navigate resources by goal or role. There are lively communities of ID researchers and reviewers who share challenges and good practice, including:

ITD-Alliance – Global Alliance for Inter- and Transdisciplinarity

International Network for the Science of Team Science (INSciTS)

Integration and Implementation Insights – A community blog and repository of resources for improving research impact on complex real-world problems (i2insights.org)

Catherine’s key points were

  • Review of IDR can be biased against novelty (when judged from a disciplinary perspective)
  • Panels work most effectively with “integration experts” who can bring their own experiences of working across disciplinary boundaries and with different people
  • Funders who understand IDR will explain to reviewers what they mean by this term and how they want reviewers to approach it (as seen with the approach for REF 2021)
  • There is a HUGE body of work on IDR and it’s frustrating to see a lack of awareness of this leading to so much reinvention. This was a major motivator and driver for the SHAPE-ID project
  • The FLF community has a strong IDR base and she urged them to step forward to be evaluators and to look for opportunities to contribute to discussions about research evaluation
  • Most institutions will have a centre or institute which promote and foster IDR – look for this in your home institution

Finally, with more opportunities and invitations for peer review expected from funders, participants were urged to speak up for IDR and to ask “how will we ensure we don’t penalise IDR?” and to see themselves as the IDR champion in the room. The links dotted throughout this blog should equip reviewers for this role.

 

In our first Fellow Feature we spoke to Dr Noemi Procopio about her research and discussed her experience of being part of the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network.

Dr Noemi Procopio is a Senior Research Fellow at University of Central Lancashire, Principal Investigator at the Forens-OMICS Team and a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow.

Noemi and her research team apply omics methodologies – approaches regularly used in biology to create a comprehensive analysis of genetic or molecular profiles of humans, organisms and cells – to forensic science. Hence, ‘Forens-OMICS.’

The problem
She explained that these methods are widely used in biology and medical fields but are less explored in forensics, partially due to a lack of funding. Her work involves analysis on human skeletal remains, donated for the use of forensic research.

Noemi sources bone samples from body farms in the US for the extraction of bio-molecules such as DNA, proteins, metabolites and lipids. The bio-molecules are then examined to date the bones and understand age at death. For forensics, this is critical information that is not yet accurately determined with a specific method. Currently estimations are made through examining bones for weathering, which can limit identification.

The goal is to date these bones accurately to solve forensic cases, including mass disasters and war, through accurate identification. These techniques would also be hugely useful if applied in other fields such as archaeology.

In sourcing bones from these body farms, Noemi has observed that the varying treatment methods of bones impacts viability for analysis. For example, bones that have been boiled using methods for classic anthropological approach don’t have the same bio-molecules needed for her research.

Impact solutions
The first target is to create these methods, to identify those specific biomarkers that can be used widely in general forensic analysis. Noemi and her team have identified several of these biomarkers that could provide the answers. One such method involves studying the way proteins decay over time through the analysis of an amino acid, looking how a particular chemical group depreciates over time. This could potentially determine how long a protein has been decaying. Understanding this would have a major impact as it may allow forensic teams to accurately date remains and help identify unknown victims.

In order to develop such methods, a wide range of bones that are viable for this type of analysis is needed. To get to this point developing a bespoke method for the treatment of bones for forensic research is important. Noemi is currently sharing her findings with facilities on this.

Networking and collaboration
When attending a Future Leaders Fellows Development Network event Noemi met other Fellows facing the same problem. They are now collaborating to address these issues in the treatment of human remains in multiple fields and applying for a Plus Fund.

Network programmes
Noemi has participated in a variety of Network programmes including leadership development events, 360 Feedback Coaching and Mentoring.

During the Mentoring process she was matched with a Professor from the University of Liverpool in the humanities.

“My mentor’s speciality was very different from mine, but it was a perfect match because she had such a busy life like me! It was great to have that support from another woman. I told her I feel like I’m not doing enough, like I should be doing even more work than I am already doing, submitting even more papers and applying for grants. She told me I just needed to focus on my research, and that reassurance and support was great. This was probably my top experience in the Network, as we are looking to submit a paper together!”

Increasing profile
Noemi noted that through her research, and being part of the Network, more people have been reaching out for her expert opinions and support. She noted that she is now working under ‘problem lead’ research and feels that this will make a huge difference in practical forensic analysis and identification. She has built up connections with practitioners working in the field because of the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network and these relationships open up pathways for further research.

“Every time I’m asked about being an FLF, I tell them it’s one of the best things to happen to my career, we have such a lot of support, and it’s amazing!”

By Katie Nicoll Baines

Knowing how to intervene when you witness someone being bullied or harassed can feel like an impossible task. The fear that you will say the wrong thing and make an already tense situation worse or the worry that someone might not want your help in the first place, are among the multitude of thoughts might wrestle with if you are motivated to help but do not have the knowledge or experience to know how to effectively.

Bullying and Harassment is, unfortunately, prevalent in Higher Education institutions. In 2019, UKRI published an Evidence Review, which you can read HERE, which provided a comprehensive overview of the problem we are facing as well as examining effective approaches to tackling bullying & harassment in research and innovation environments.

The Future Leaders Fellows Development Network is marking anti-bullying week (14th- 18th November 2022) by delivering a session on Active Bystander Training on the 17th November, online, between 0930-1100. Register for the training HERE. The delivery of this training as part of our network activities compliments the recommendations by UKRI in addressing this critical issue.

This session has been designed as a training session that is specifically tailored to the research and innovation environments that you are navigating. This training aims to improve your understanding of what bullying & harassment is and equip you with the tools to intervene, to be able to support those affected and challenge those causing harm to others.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

By Kay Guccione and Charlotte Bonner-Evans, the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network Mentoring Team.


For National Mentoring Day 2022, we wanted to share a bit about how we ensure such a high success rate for our mentoring partnerships. One of the pillars of the Future Leaders Fellows Leadership Mentoring Programme is that we make a bespoke match for each mentee, and mentor. This is because we believe that at the heart of a successful mentoring partnership is a good matching process and we don’t compromise on our commitment to this. We know that a well-designed matching process can add several positives to the mentoring partnership:

For example, for our busy mentees there are many unknowns that can provide barriers to getting started. Simply not knowing who is available as a mentor, and considering what kind of person might suit them best, may cause them to put off getting started. Knowing what to say and how to make an approach, can create a further obstacle. A matching process takes the anxiousness out of contacting a mentor and removes the possibility of being disappointed or rejected.

For our mentors who volunteer their time, we want to make sure that they are supported to work with a person with whom they can build a good working relationship, and to whom they will feel useful. We also need to make sure that no mentor is overloaded with requests, and that no mentor goes unmatched for more than one programme cycle.

And for both, matching is the basis of building trust and alliance in the partnership. A people-centred matching process can ensure alignment of each participant’s own objectives with the overarching programme objectives, reassure both parties about what’s expected of them (and what isn’t), communicate why they have been matched together, ease the first introductory meeting, and support the relationship to get off to a great start.

We use a Matching Profile Form to collect matching information. This form is designed to:

  • Find out more about each participant as a person. This includes what they enjoy, what they value and how they experience their work, as well as what they specialise in and their qualifications and achievement.
  • Get information about who participants would like to meet, and what kind of person would help them to be at their best.
  • Support mentees to articulate their specific goals for the programme, and to prioritise these.
  • Keep any potentially personal or sensitive matching information relatively confidential (compared to, say, publishing all mentor profiles online and allowing mentees to browse and pick), which allows them to be more open in what they include on their Matching Profile form.

The form also acts as a means of introduction. Once a pair is matched, they can read each other’s profile as a way of getting to know a bit about each other before their first meeting.

Once the forms are all in, the mentoring programme team spend time reading, re-reading, discussing, and note taking trying to get to know each person better through their profile. If we need more information, or if we can’t understand what they want to prioritise from their form, we go back to them for a discussion. Making a hand-picked match for every mentee takes up quite some time and is probably the most time-intensive task we engage with as mentoring programme leaders. But it works well for us, as we have built time into the programme cycle to consider each mentee as an individual.

However, this method gives participants reduced control over their match (compared to picking their own mentor from a list) and so it pays to build relationships with them through the Welcome Workshops we run prior to Profile-making, that demonstrate how it works, that we can be trusted with the information they disclose, and that we will select a match for them with their best interests in mind.

A final bonus of this matching system is that if the pairs meet and for any reason decide that they are not well matched, they can come back to us for a re-match without the awkwardness of having to admit to each other that they may have made the wrong selection. Our programme has contingencies built in for re-matching (though this rarely happens) and we work closely with the pairs so that they feel they can come back to us with queries or concerns about how or why they have been paired.

We generally advise that ‘no match is better than a bad match’ to avoid wasting participants’ time, and if we don’t have the right mentor at first, we will recruit one, or match them as a priority in the next cycle. An example of this, and more about the value of a good match can be read about in this blog post, in which mentor and mentee discuss their experiences.

Read more about our Leadership Mentoring Programme 

By Professor Claire Gorrara and Dr Sarah Inskip

The Future Leaders Fellows Development Network’s Leadership Mentoring Programme has a unique and considered matching process. Fellows are hand-matched with expert mentors through a ‘people-match’ approach. This allows Mentors to support their Fellow’s priorities and aspirations. This process facilitates a partnership that is built upon individual experiences, preferences, and values.

This is evident in the successful match-up of Professor Claire Gorrara and Dr Sarah Inskip.

Mentor Claire Gorrara is Dean of Research and Innovation for the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of French Studies at Cardiff University. Her research encompasses curriculum reform and the teaching of modern languages in schools in Wales. She has worked with mentoring programmes in schools since 2015 as part of her research to support the uptake of modern languages at GCSE level. She is passionate about the power of mentoring to support personal growth and development.

Dr Sarah Inskip is an Osteoarchaeologist and UKRI Future Leaders Fellow in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester. Her research focuses on revealing the impact of tobacco on the health of Western Europeans from 1600-1900. Dr Inskip integrates skeletal evidence obtained from archaeological human skeletal remains with historical and modern health narratives. By utilising modern research techniques she is able to reveal new insights into archaeological questions.

Both Sarah and Claire commented it would be unlikely there would have been such an effective mentoring relationship if the process took into account only a ‘skills-match’ as their research spans such different fields. This personal matching aspect is a core value behind the Network’s matching process and enables relationships that help Fellows to develop in areas that matter to them.

In fact, when Sarah applied to the programme she was met with a form that allowed her to provide her preferences. “I was looking for a mentor with a similar background and set of values. I wanted to get support from a female academic who had faced similar hurdles and overcame confidence problems.”

The Network’s Mentoring Manager, Charlotte Bonner-Evans, is responsible for matching pairs and shared some of the behind the scenes processes of creating a successful match.

“We take very seriously the position of trust we have when matching mentees and mentors, combining objectives, experience, and trusted shared information, to hand-match with the best interests in mind of both mentees and mentors. Each match is made and reflected upon before released to the pairs. With this match, I was able to return to Dr Inskip to narrow down what she was looking for in a match, and instead of matching straight away, and potentially mismatching, she kindly agreed to wait, as I was aware that Professor Gorrara had registered for the next Leadership Mentoring orientation session and had presented ideal match information.”

Sarah let Charlotte know that she was looking for someone to support her with schools engagement. She wanted to effectively communicate her findings on tobacco’s long-term impact on health to pupils. Based on the information she provided, Charlotte knew Claire would be the perfect mentor for Sarah and offered the match. On the pair-up, Claire said that “It worked massively being from the same background, we clicked on a personal level as women academics and we both identified as coming from working-class families. Although we had little similarity in our research fields, we both had similar personal trajectories and ambitions. It’s a great scheme allowing people to be matched on values.”

Sarah and Claire also set aside time to meet in person to discuss each other’s academic outlooks and experiences. Sarah described their professional relationship developing through the programme:

“We quickly realised we had overlapping experiences and that we both wanted to make an impact on young people and their life choices. It’s hugely beneficial that she knows is where I’m coming from. It’s incredibly helpful having someone impartial to my institution, who is more senior and I feel comfortable being able to talk to her about anything.”

Professor Gorrara aded that, “Working together is mutually beneficial, it gives us both a fresh perspective, coming from such different fields. There are huge benefits in knowledge and experience exchange and it brings the possibility of collaborating on future projects.”

Claire explained the impact mentoring programmes had on the uptake of modern languages within schools and Sarah found this hugely beneficial. Claire connected Sarah to Lucy Jenkins, Programme Manager of the MFL (Modern Foreign Language) Mentoring Project, with whom she works. Lucy was able to share insights about sustaining long-term relationships with schools.

The impact of this match-up can be felt in Sarah’s daily work, “I’m a lot more confident in trying to do much larger things. I now have a growing network to check in with as I navigate this new area. I’m incredibly grateful to Claire for sharing her experiences.”

Claire also discussed the benefit of the partnership on her own work, “It’s so useful to connect with academics out with humanities who have a different perspective. So I’ve been able to learn from Sarah’s challenges. In my career, I’ve helped support academics on applications to become Future Leader Fellows, but seeing and supporting a live project has given great insight into how Fellow’s carry out their work.”

In the future Claire and Sarah, along with Lucy, will continue to work together to maximise Sarah’s school engagement work. They will continue to work together as colleagues who want to make a difference. Professor Gorrara said, “The Network does truly provide a people-matching mentoring programme. I would recommend it to both mentors and Fellows.”

Explore our Leadership Mentoring Programme and read more about the matching process in our blog from Kay Guccione and Charlotte Bonner-Evans.