Can a microbiologist perform groundbreaking research with a political scientist? Or an electronics engineer with an architect? As it seeks to find ways to move towards a zero-emissions society, the Research Council of Norway (Forskningsrådet) decided to host its first ‘idélab’, and find collaborative, holistic solutions to climate-change problems.
Climate change is not something that an individual person, research group, or institution can tackle on its own. Indeed, there is much technology and research already in place for tackling climate problems: the trouble is, for meaningful progress to be made, such technological solutions have to filter out from researchers both towards the people who can use them day after day, and towards governments who can encourage and reward such use. Thus a newly developed catalyst that could absorb CO2 would have to be put into the sea before it can make a difference, and a new breed of light-saving windows would have to be installed in buildings. But scientists can’t just start pumping new products into oceans, nor can they come and stick special film to your windows. Indeed, in this research area where time is so precious (assuming we are not already too late), is it worth wasting it on technology which would then be rejected by the public or policy makers? For the Research Council of Norway, the resounding answer is ‘no’, therefore an ‘idélab’ to generate cross-disciplinary projects among researchers who would not normally have come into contact with each other was held in January 2014.
Nearly two years later, the five projects that came out of the idélab are well underway. But what is an idélab? A literal translation would be ‘idea lab’, but readers from the UK might know the process as a ‘sandpit’ (for it was based on those organised by the EPSRC). Twenty-seven researchers and practitioners from across the full spectrum of disciplines worked with a team of mentors and facilitators. The participants were drawn from both the public and the private sectors, from industry and academia. And the disciplines represented were indeed diverse: there were attendees from the natural sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, engineering, medicine, ICT, and the arts and humanities (‘even a medievalist’, as it was reported to my amusement).
The projects that won funding as a result of the idélab all have two things in common: they aim for a zero-emissions society, and they include cross-disciplinary collaboration. Cross-disciplinary, in this context, is a step beyond interdisciplinary. If interdisciplinary collaboration usually combines disciplines that are separate but not too far removed from each other, here I use the term ‘cross-disciplinary’ to indicate that the collaboration crosses faculty divides that are usually heavily – if often inadvertently – guarded. I say ‘inadvertently’ because even in this age of booming interdisciplinarity and digital networking, cross-disciplinarity is rare for a number of practical reasons. Networking (through conferences, workshops, teaching) is often restricted by the very nature of the events: historians do not often attend for the latest conferences on computational chemistry, for instance, or even follow their twitter hashtags. And in the event that an idea for collaboration is generated, how can it be funded? Cross-disciplinary projects are not only difficult to generate; those that are dreamt up often do not fit neatly under existing funding umbrellas. (The road to research hell may in fact be paved with unfunded, discarded, cross-disciplinary ideas, perhaps together with the fossilized PDFs of eligibility criteria).
In a series of blogposts on Piirus, then, I will follow the idélab projects and report on cross-disciplinarity in action. I will also report on the Research Council of Norway’s policies on the process, particularly as it prepares for the second idélab in January 2016. In the coming months we will cover the development of the projects in their quest to practically reduce societal emissions: carbon capturing in soils, algae as producers of oil-like substances, biodegradable cement, and carbon-neutral buildings. Is cross-disciplinary research the key to saving the planet? Join me to find out.