Inside Track – Professor Stuart Taberner: Interdisciplinary Research – working across disciplines to tackle global challenges

Collaborative working is one of the greatest strengths at Leeds.

Professor Stuart Taberner May 2019

Since I started as Dean for Interdisciplinary Research in January this year, I’ve been struck by how eager colleagues across campus are to join together to tackle the huge challenges of our time – amongst others, climate change and environmental degradation; liveable cities; ecologically-sensitive food production; conflict and migration; maximising the benefits of ‘big data’ and minimising the downsides; and creating fair and equitable societies alongside sustainable economic growth.

While systems and structures at Leeds have been adapted over time to try and facilitate this, obstacles to change have inevitably been encountered along the way. We’re working on mitigating these issues and encouraging a more general shift in culture towards mutual support across disciplines and services so that interdisciplinarity can flourish.

The unprecedented scale and complexity of the challenges we face today mean we all need to embrace this spirit of collaboration and openness to innovation. If we are to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, research-intensive and globally-oriented universities such as Leeds need to work with governments, business and third-sector organisations – locally, regionally, nationally and worldwide – to find solutions that can maximise benefits, acknowledge trade-offs, mitigate downsides and anticipate both the known unknowns and unknown unknowns of the future.

Addressing global challenges

What are researchers at Leeds doing to address global challenges? There are so many exemplars of excellent interdisciplinary research, and it’s always risky to identify a small number as representative of the whole. So, I’ll mention just one – the Priestley International Centre for Climate, which brings people together from across the breadth of disciplines, from Engineering to Arts and Design, and whose researchers helped write the UK Government’s recent Committee on Climate Change report, recommending a new net-zero emissions target by 2050.

I could, of course, name similarly interdisciplinary initiatives involving colleagues in materials sciences and design; bio-engineering; robotics and healthcare; artificial intelligence (AI) and transport; food systems; employment and sustainable growth; performance and social justice; international development and everywhere else across campus. This work is superbly supported by our themes and platforms in cities, culture, energy, food, health, water, social sciences, climate change, data analytics and structural biology.

Promoting interdisciplinary research

My role is to promote and support these initiatives, along with Head of Interdisciplinary Research, Samantha Aspinall, and a team of research development managers in the Research and Innovation Service. We are working with the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, Professor Lisa Roberts, to place interdisciplinary research at the centre of our evolving strategy, to ensure it is celebrated and, with faculty Pro-Deans and themes and platforms leaders, to support existing strengths and seek out new ideas.

Just last month, we funded ten cross-campus collaborations through our pump-priming scheme. These range from addressing climate change to mapping the Leeds urban food system, exploring the implications for social justice, as well as environmental and dietary health.

We anticipate a new call for proposals in the autumn, and we will be looking again for genuinely exciting and unexpected interdisciplinary partnerships with the potential for significant impact.

The challenges we confront today are immense, often overwhelming, but I never cease to be amazed by the ingenuity of researchers trying to address them. Samantha, myself and the whole Interdisciplinary Research Team are keen to hear your ideas and help wherever we can!

Professor Stuart Taberner

Dean for Interdisciplinary Research

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