Interdisciplinary, challenge-led funding will shape our future research, according to a report from The University of Lincoln’s 21st Century Lab.

The permeable university: the purpose of universities in the 21st Century looks at the big societal challenges (‘wicked problems’) that we, and future generations will face, and discusses how the higher education sector can better respond to these problems.

Based on a series of 10 challenges, the report makes key recommendations of how universities should adopt a more permeable approach to their activities in order to create a more fluid relationship within their communities and to wider society.

Collaborative research

One of the key recommendations of the report is to further evolve interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary research projects to be able to match the growing complexity of societal challenges.

Universities are already working across disciplines to address the wicked problems that cannot be solved by one singular approach. The report states that in the UK more than 50% of funded research is now collaborative, highlighting calls such as the Global Challenge funds in the UK and Horizon 2020 in the EU as those which actively encourage cross-disciplinary working.

In addition, the report noted that there is a greater understanding from research that solutions are more complex. As a result of this, research is being evaluated much more thematically than ever before, meaning that research activity is taking account of the breadth of its reach more consistently. Institutions are also focusing on themes or missions to direct research strengths to solve a range of critical problems.

Ten challenges for the 21st century
1. Mitigating environmental and ecological damage
2. Increasing inequality of wealth and income
3. Civic disaffection
4. Void of vision and foresight
5. Living in a global society
6. Changing economic powers
7. Technological disruption
8. Identities and changing norms in society
9. Migration and mobility
10. Conflict and war

Work in progress

However, despite the good work that universities are already doing, the report proposes that more can be done to enable research teams to come together with an eco-system approach. The idea being that this approach would embrace the dynamic aspect of research investigations and include a range of different people beyond the academy. For example, the report suggests that more needs to be done to bridge the gap between the arts and sciences, and to ‘reconceptualise’ disciplines to meet modern needs.

The message is clear, to effectively solve the big challenges of today and tomorrow, researchers across all disciplines must work together. Funders are already taking note, and the likelihood is that this move towards collaborative research funding will only increase as inter/transdisciplinarity becomes even more vital for the future of our society.


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