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Interdisciplinary toolkit is a blueprint for ‘world-class’ research

A toolkit produced by an Irish-led international initiative paves the way for the future of EU research, writes Catherine Healy.

The SHAPE-ID toolkit is described as a “world-class” resource in a recent review by the European Commission, paving the way for it to be considered for adoption by EU funders.

The resource, which promotes interdisciplinary research, is the work of a consortium of European partners coordinated by the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute. A review has suggested that it could be used to provide training for experts appointed to evaluate interdisciplinary proposals made under Horizon Europe, a €95.5bn EU research programme.

Future Human

The report says the initiative positions Europe as a leader in the field and warrants “careful consideration” by policymakers seeking a holistic approach to research funding. It says the project has shown the value of interdisciplinary research – or research that draws on more than one discipline – for addressing society’s biggest challenges.

‘Humans are at the centre of most of the world’s problems, and science and technology only take you so far in addressing them’
– PROF JANE OHLMEYER

This endorsement is considered a significant development for a field that has long been misunderstood in higher education.

Interdisciplinarity is a buzzword in many universities these days. The term often conjures up a picture of academics in different fields working independently around a common interest.

But what interdisciplinarity requires is collaboration that integrates knowledge from distinct disciplines – a challenging but critical task in addressing such global challenges as the climate crisis and artificial intelligence, according to policy experts.

The SHAPE-ID toolkit encourages a more meaningful collaborative approach to research with guidance on how to engage with specialists from other disciplines, how to co-design a successful project, and how to support and assess such projects. It includes guided pathways to help researchers, funders and policymakers develop and support interdisciplinary research, as well as case studies from across the EU.

STEM plus AHSS

The project puts a particular emphasis on the value of integrating AHSS (arts, humanities and social sciences) in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). A central theme is the importance of AHSS for scrutinising attitudes, behaviours and values, which can be critical for defining and framing societal problems.

The toolkit is bolstered by research on the conditions needed to support such collaboration, drawing on interviews with policy stakeholders along with academic and policy literature reviews.

The European Commission review of the project says it has “convincingly demonstrated that enabling AHSS integration requires a widespread change in the science system, from how policy is made to how science is funded, how researchers are trained and how their careers are evaluated by universities and funders alike”.

Towards transdisciplinarity

SHAPE-ID also highlights the possibilities offered by transdisciplinarity, which involves the integration of knowledge from both academic and societal partners. Its toolkit provides guidance for partnerships between third-level researchers and four key groups: artists and creative practitioners, citizen groups, enterprise, and the voluntary sector.

The European Commission review suggests that the project be further developed to promote such partnerships. It says that the toolkit could, for example, benefit SMEs interested in bringing human-centred perspectives to business.

‘Beyond tokenism’

Prof Jane Ohlmeyer, SHAPE-ID’s principal investigator, said third-level institutions and research funders must now actively build capacity for more collaborative research.

“We need to go beyond tokenism and think about how to integrate different modes of thinking in a deeper way,” she said. “The structures within universities can be changed to reward and incentivise interdisciplinarity, but we can also reconsider how funding calls are structured. It can be as simple as making sure you have inclusive language that makes people from different disciplines feel seen.”

A historian at Trinity College Dublin, Ohlmeyer is herself no stranger to interdisciplinary research. She was one of the driving forces behind the digitisation of the 1641 Depositions, a collection of witness testimonies on the Irish Catholic rebellion of 1641, which runs to 19,000 pages.

The material was transcribed and made available online by a multi-institutional team involving historians, linguists and computer scientists (with support from IBM) in what was hailed a game-changing development for the teaching of Irish history.

What did she learn from the experience? “A good dose of humility,” said Ohlmeyer.

“It teaches you the importance of trust and spending time getting to know people. You have to be willing to go outside your comfort zone and not be afraid to look foolish.”

Challenges to overcome

But academics involved in SHAPE-ID have also highlighted the barriers to pursuing such approaches. One persistent problem is the fact that academic reward systems mostly privilege work done within disciplinary structures. Interdisciplinary researchers can find it more difficult to secure funding and be published in high-impact journals, blocking their career progression.

Project partner Catherine Lyall, a professor of science and public policy at Edinburgh University, pointed to the continuing focus on individual disciplines in measuring research quality. “It’s typically the case that people who work in an interdisciplinary way don’t get recognition early on in their careers, which you might do if you were a leading star in biology, say, or engineering.”

Lyall said researchers can also face many hindrances in moving beyond disciplinary boundaries. “If you’re asked to teach in a different school, for example, you have to consider if that’s recognised by your own school, and whether there are administrative barriers to budgets moving between different units.”

Academics are further hamstrung by the view that STEM subjects are better suited to confronting the world’s biggest problems. Even in interdisciplinary projects, AHSS specialists tend not to set the key research objectives, often being assigned to auxiliary tasks like public dissemination.

“There are projects that invite AHSS researchers to the table, but only in an instrumental way,” said SHAPE-ID’s Dr Bianca Vienni Baptista, a senior researcher at ETH Zurich.

“The research priorities are still decided by STEM researchers, which may be suitable for certain types of problems but certainly not for all. What we need are spaces where people can sit down and have time to listen to each other and co-produce the research questions.”

‘We don’t know how to recruit or promote interdisciplinary researchers, or even where to put them’
– DR JENNIFER EDMOND

Dr Jennifer Edmond, an associate professor of digital humanities at Trinity College Dublin, sees such partnership as particularly crucial in dealing with technological innovation. One of the projects she currently leads, called K-PLEX, examines how humanities and cultural experts can help inform approaches to big data research.

“I think a lot of problems could be avoided by having a stronger culturally sensitive voice embedded in the way we develop technologies,” she said. “The arts and humanities shouldn’t be seen as a break on science or technology, but rather as a contextual frame that can make research more innovative, and more aligned with the world around it.”

However, Edmond added that there are many hurdles to be jumped as an academic working across different fields.

“There is a recognition that interdisciplinarity is the way to go in providing novel solutions to big problems, but that recognition often hits up against the scholarly establishments that we’ve built over centuries,” she said. “We don’t know how to recruit or promote interdisciplinary researchers, or even where to put them within institutions.”

Valuing new perspectives

Edmond has experienced frustration again and again in the course of her own career as an interdisciplinary scholar, from having her methods dismissed to facing bureaucratic roadblocks even in registering PhD students under her supervision – since doctoral candidates in her university are expected to be associated with a single discipline.

Lyall said interdisciplinary careers are still far from normalised within higher education. “We describe it in presentations as the ‘paradox of interdisciplinarity’, a term coined by the sociologist Peter Weingart.

“On the one hand, you have interdisciplinary research being very much promoted within the policy literature, and by funders and policymakers. But on the other hand, universities and research institutes are still largely geared towards single discipline structures. That’s a big challenge for researchers who want to do this kind of work.”

Although she acknowledges AHSS scholars need to be clearer about the merit of their approaches, Lyall thinks STEM researchers must also make a greater effort to communicate with colleagues from other disciplines.

“What’s clear is that there’s a real lack of understanding about what the arts and humanities have to offer. The message we’re trying to get across through the toolkit is that perspectives from these disciplines can bring so much value in terms of understanding human behaviour, and understanding how problems can be framed in different ways.”

Ohlmeyer agreed: “There needs to be a recognition that humans are at the centre of most of the world’s problems, and that science and technology only take you so far in addressing them. That’s why it’s critical that we engage with the AHSS community in addressing these challenges.”

By Catherine Healy

Catherine Healy is an Irish Research Council-funded PhD candidate at the Department of History in the School of Histories and Humanities at Trinity College Dublin.

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European Startup Ecosystems Awash With Gulf Investment – Here Are Some Of The Top Investors

European Startup Ecosystem Getting Flooded With Gulf Investments

The Voice Of EU | In recent years, European entrepreneurs seeking capital infusion have widened their horizons beyond the traditional American investors, increasingly turning their gaze towards the lucrative investment landscape of the Gulf region. With substantial capital reservoirs nestled within sovereign wealth funds and corporate venture capital entities, Gulf nations have emerged as compelling investors for European startups and scaleups.

According to comprehensive data from Dealroom, the influx of investment from Gulf countries into European startups soared to a staggering $3 billion in 2023, marking a remarkable 5x surge from the $627 million recorded in 2018.

This substantial injection of capital, accounting for approximately 5% of the total funding raised in the region, underscores the growing prominence of Gulf investors in European markets.

Particularly noteworthy is the significant support extended to growth-stage companies, with over two-thirds of Gulf investments in 2023 being directed towards funding rounds exceeding $100 million. This influx of capital provides a welcome boost to European companies grappling with the challenge of securing well-capitalized investors locally.

Delving deeper into the landscape, Sifted has identified the most active Gulf investors in European startups over the past two years.

Leading the pack is Aramco Ventures, headquartered in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Bolstered by a substantial commitment, Aramco Ventures boasts a $1.5 billion sustainability fund, alongside an additional $4 billion allocated to its venture capital arm, positioning it as a formidable player with a total investment capacity of $7 billion by 2027. With a notable presence in 17 funding rounds, Aramco Ventures has strategically invested in ventures such as Carbon Clean Solutions and ANYbotics, aligning with its focus on businesses that offer strategic value.

Following closely is Mubadala Capital, headquartered in Abu Dhabi, UAE, with an impressive tally of 13 investments in European startups over the past two years. Backed by the sovereign wealth fund Mubadala Investment Company, Mubadala Capital’s diverse investment portfolio spans private equity, venture capital, and alternative solutions. Notable investments include Klarna, TIER, and Juni, reflecting its global investment strategy across various sectors.

Ventura Capital, based in Dubai, UAE, secured its position as a key player with nine investments in European startups. With a presence in Dubai, London, and Tokyo, Ventura Capital boasts an international network of limited partners and a sector-agnostic investment approach, contributing to its noteworthy investments in companies such as Coursera and Spotify.

Qatar Investment Authority, headquartered in Doha, Qatar, has made significant inroads into the European startup ecosystem with six notable investments. As the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, QIA’s diversified portfolio spans private and public equity, infrastructure, and real estate, with strategic investments in tech startups across healthcare, consumer, and industrial sectors.

MetaVision Dubai, a newcomer to the scene, has swiftly garnered attention with six investments in European startups. Focusing on seed to Series A startups in the metaverse and Web3 space, MetaVision raised an undisclosed fund in 2022, affirming its commitment to emerging technologies and innovative ventures.

Investcorp, headquartered in Manama, Bahrain, has solidified its presence with six investments in European startups. With a focus on mid-sized B2B businesses, Investcorp’s diverse investment strategies encompass private equity, real estate, infrastructure, and credit management, contributing to its notable investments in companies such as Terra Quantum and TruKKer.

Chimera Capital, based in Abu Dhabi, UAE, rounds off the list with four strategic investments in European startups. As part of a prominent business conglomerate, Chimera Capital leverages its global reach and sector-agnostic approach to drive investments in ventures such as CMR Surgical and Neat Burger.

In conclusion, the burgeoning influx of capital from Gulf investors into European startups underscores the region’s growing appeal as a vibrant hub for innovation and entrepreneurship. With key players such as Aramco Ventures, Mubadala Capital, and Ventura Capital leading the charge, European startups are poised to benefit from the strategic investments and partnerships forged with Gulf investors, propelling them towards sustained growth and success in the global market landscape.


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China Reveals Lunar Mission: Sending ‘Taikonauts’ To The Moon From 2030 Onwards

China Reveals Lunar Mission

The Voice Of EU | In a bold stride towards lunar exploration, the Chinese Space Agency has unveiled its ambitious plans for a moon landing set to unfold in the 2030s. While exact timelines remain uncertain, this endeavor signals a potential resurgence of the historic space race reminiscent of the 1960s rivalry between the United States and the USSR.

China’s recent strides in lunar exploration include the deployment of three devices on the moon’s surface, coupled with the successful launch of the Queqiao-2 satellite. This satellite serves as a crucial communication link, bolstering connectivity between Earth and forthcoming missions to the moon’s far side and south pole.

Unlike the secretive approach of the Soviet Union in the past, China’s strategy leans towards transparency, albeit with a hint of mystery surrounding the finer details. Recent revelations showcase the naming and models of lunar spacecraft, steeped in cultural significance. The Mengzhou, translating to “dream ship,” will ferry three astronauts to and from the moon, while the Lanyue, meaning “embrace the moon,” will descend to the lunar surface.

Drawing inspiration from both Russian and American precedents, China’s lunar endeavor presents a novel approach. Unlike its predecessors, China will employ separate launches for the manned module and lunar lander due to the absence of colossal space shuttles. This modular approach bears semblance to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, reflecting a contemporary adaptation of past achievements.

Upon reaching lunar orbit, astronauts, known as “taikonauts” in Chinese, will rendezvous with the lunar lander, reminiscent of the Apollo program’s maneuvers. However, distinct engineering choices mark China’s departure from traditional lunar landing methods.

The Chinese lunar lander, while reminiscent of the Apollo Lunar Module, introduces novel features such as a single set of engines and potential reusability and advance technology. Unlike past missions where lunar modules were discarded, China’s design hints at the possibility of refueling and reuse, opening avenues for sustained lunar exploration.

China Reveals Lunar Mission: Sending 'Taikonauts' To The Moon From 2030 Onwards
A re-creation of the two Chinese spacecraft that will put ‘taikonauts’ on the moon.CSM

Despite these advancements, experts have flagged potential weaknesses, particularly regarding engine protection during landing. Nevertheless, China’s lunar aspirations remain steadfast, with plans for extensive testing and site selection underway.

Beyond planting flags and collecting rocks, China envisions establishing a permanent lunar base, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), ushering in a new era of international collaboration in space exploration.

While the Artemis agreements spearheaded by NASA have garnered global support, China’s lunar ambitions stand as a formidable contender in shaping the future of space exploration. In conclusion, China’s unveiling of its lunar ambitions not only marks a significant milestone in space exploration but also sets the stage for a new chapter in the ongoing saga of humanity’s quest for the cosmos. As nations vie for supremacy in space, collaboration and innovation emerge as the cornerstones of future lunar endeavors.


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Aviation and Telecom Industries Reach Compromise on 5G Deployment

The Voice Of EU | In a significant development, AT&T and Verizon, the two largest mobile network operators in the United States, have agreed to delay the deployment of 5G services following requests from the aviation industry and the Biden administration. This decision marks a crucial compromise in the long-standing dispute between the two industries, which had raised concerns over the potential interference of 5G with flight signals.
The aviation industry, led by United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, had been vocal about the risks of 5G deployment, citing concerns over the safety of flight operations. Kirby had urged AT&T and Verizon to delay their plans, warning that proceeding with the deployment would be a “catastrophic failure of government.” The US Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the issue further highlighted the need for a solution.
In response, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) head Steve Dickson sent a letter to the mobile networks, requesting a two-week delay to reassess the potential risks. Initially, AT&T and Verizon were hesitant, citing the aviation industry’s two-year preparation window. However, they eventually agreed to the short delay, pushing the deployment to January 19.
The crux of the issue lies in the potential interference between 5G signals and flight equipment, particularly radar altimeters. The C-Band spectrum used by 5G networks is close to the frequencies employed by these critical safety devices. The FAA requires accurate and reliable radar altimeters to ensure safe flight operations.

Airlines in the US have been at loggerheads with mobile networks over the deployment of 5G and its potential impact on flight safety.

Despite the concerns, both the FAA and the telecoms industry agree that 5G mobile networks and airline travel can coexist safely. In fact, they already do in nearly 40 countries where US airlines operate regularly. The key lies in reducing power levels around airports and fostering cross-industry collaboration prior to deployment.
The FAA has been working to find a solution in the United States, and the additional two-week delay will allow for further assessment and preparation. AT&T and Verizon have also agreed to not operate 5G base stations along runways for six months, similar to restrictions imposed in France.
President Joe Biden hailed the decision to delay as “a significant step in the right direction.” The European Union Aviation Safety Agency and South Korea have also reported no unsafe interference with radio waves since the deployment of 5G in their regions.
As the aviation and telecom industries continue to work together, it is clear that safe coexistence is possible. The delay in 5G deployment is a crucial step towards finding a solution that prioritizes both safety and innovation. With ongoing collaboration and technical assessments, the United States can join the growing list of countries where 5G and airlines coexist without issue.

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