Connecting with NODES: scoping the potential for interdisciplinary learning

Last week, Dr Eve Forrest, ESRC IAA Officer attended an industry-facing event put on by the NODES network, she tells us here about the potential connections to be made by social sciences across disciplines and with industry 

Learning about various overlapping  nodes and connections in the NODES research group

Last week I went to an afternoon organised by NODES (North East Organisation of Discrete Structures) a group of Mathematicians and Computer Scientists based at Newcastle and Durham Universities. This was slightly unknown territory for me as I am based in the HaSS (Humanities and Social Science) Faculty in Newcastle University and my own interdisciplinary research interests are based in the Humanities although I have dabbled outside of this sphere. I was there out of curiosity  because I have been tasked by the ESRC as part of my role to think about how social science postgraduate students and early career academics can get better connected with local businesses and industry (this blog post written by Tim Vorley from Sheffield University and Melanie Knetsch from the ESRC, outlines the context for this and why it is important for future potential funding in the social sciences).

The industry day was split into two sections: showing links between Newcastle PhD students (both present and former) with a computational and mathematical background and their journey into industry. Alongside those were a quick set of ‘speed dating’ presentations, where local, national and multinational businesses, presented some of the areas they were working on, the challenges they faced and the areas they were interested in developing with NODES. Through the pure mathematical and computational language I was listening out for potential areas where social science could intersect with and help on some of the industry problems outlined in the presentations and was happy to find there was there was plenty to think about.

The buzz of course, across multiple disciplines,is about data (both big and small) and about how it is gathered, sorted, processed and what stories it can tell us (and more recently the ethical implications of its harvesting and life beyond the user thanks to the expose of Cambridge Analytica). Humans can be very predictable in their habits which can be broadly mapped, learned and shaped by machines and algorithms, yet they can also be deeply unpredictable and their interactions complex, beyond the (current) understanding of AI. It was clear that some of the issues posed by industry could not be solved by maths alone. Social science also has a role in directly challenging the often sweeping conclusions that have been made from and about Big Data too as danah boyd and Kate Crawford** (2015) write:

‘we must ask difficult questions of Big Data’s models of intelligibility before they crystallize into new orthodoxies’

Social science can offer valuable insight, working with other disciplines feeding into both these known and unknown strands.

At the break I managed to get a chance to speak to one of the presenters Abi Giles-Haigh, alumni of Newcastle University who now works as Head of Data Science at North-East based company Caspian. I told her I was there as a bit of an outlier and how pleased I was that she mentioned in her presentation how important the different interdisciplinary aspects were to her team (pulling from diverse areas such as psychology, sociology,  statistics and computing). She nodded and said ‘ultimately, I see us all as data scientists, no matter where we sit’.

There are an infinite number of nodes, structures and complex interactions that underpin everyday life which social science can help interrogate and interpret. I look forward to future joints events with the ESRC, EPSRC and NODES to explore the possibilities of collaboration and where areas of knowledge and interests overlap. If we are all going to be data scientists, this seems like the best place to start.

**cited in Papacharissi, Z (2015) The unbearable lightness of information and the impossible gravitas of knowledge: Big Data and the makings of a digital orality,  Media, Culture, Society Vol 37, Issue 7, pp. 1095 – 1100

Northern Bridge and Ecologies of Knowledge

Vital North Partnership Manager Rachel Pattinson writes about a recent event at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, discussing different approaches to collaborative working

Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books is a strategic partner to the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. In May, I joined staff from Newcastle University, Durham University and Queen’s University Belfast,as well as colleagues from Northern Bridge’s strategic partners, for Ecologies of Knowledge, a seminar held at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast.

The seminar was suggested by Sage Gateshead’s Dave Camlin. It gave us the chance to reflect on our time working together on Northern Bridge so far, and “to explore some of the tensions and opportunities inherent in collaborative approaches to the generation of new knowledge.”

Newcastle University's Professor Mike Rossington addresses the Northern Bridge Ecologies of Knowledge seminar. Image courtesy of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.
Newcastle University’s Professor Mike Rossington addresses the Northern Bridge Ecologies of Knowledge seminar. Image courtesy of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

Of course, there are tensions; when you bring together any group of academic institutions, or cultural organisations, there is competition – for students, for audiences, for funding. And although learning is at the heart of what both universities and cultural venues do, the processes through which we generate knowledge are quite different. We speak different languages. We have different drivers. Working in collaboration requires negotiating all of these factors.

Another tension which formed a focus of conversation during the day was the inequality of engagement with the arts. The Warwick Commission’s Enriching Britain, Culture, Creative and Growth Report states that “the wealthiest, better educated and least ethnically diverse 8% of the population forms the most culturally active segment of all”. How to reach those beyond that 8% is certainly a challenge.

But democratising culture and knowledge is becoming increasingly important in both the higher education and cultural sectors. The Research Excellence Framework emphasises the impact of research ‘beyond academia’; Arts Council England encourages the organisations they fund to reach more demographically diverse audiences.

Dave Camlin (Sage Gateshead) opens the seminar. Image courtesy of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.
Dave Camlin (Sage Gateshead) opens the seminar. Image courtesy of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

From my experience of working on the Vital North Partnership between Newcastle University and Seven Stories, collaboration holds exciting opportunities. Partnership helps to make our activities more interesting and diverse. At the intersections between universities, cultural organisations and communities, we can draw on our collective expertise to create new kinds of shared knowledge. And with increasing pressure on arts budgets, we can pool our resources and become more efficient.

I explored the Vital North Partnership’s unique ecology at the seminar, giving a Pecha Kucha presentation. It was also interesting to reflect on what role Northern Bridge, as a Doctoral Training Partnership, has as part of our shared ecology. I think the ways in which universities and arts organisations collaborate is changing. We are asking different questions, and having new conversations. I work at this boundary – and I’m interested to see where we’re headed next.

For more information about the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Consortium, visit:

This post originally featured on Rachel’s blog, to find out more about the Vital North Partnership click here. 

Supporting innovation, facilitating engagement – VCSE fund launch

Dr Eve Forrest, ESRC IAA Officer and member of the VCSE Steering Group went along to the VCSE launch, here she tells us more about the event

Last week on a warm and sunny afternoon I popped along to the Courtyard restaurant on Newcastle campus. The room was full of new and existing external partners as well as some staff members who were there to hear more about the new University Innovation and Support programme, listen to presentations about previous and ongoing projects and to gather ideas as to how they could take part in the pilot scheme. The University wishes to strengthen links with local community groups and voluntary sector organisations and have teamed up with the folks at VONNE and Youth Focus North East to run a pilot programme over the summer. The scheme will partner up Newcastle researchers with different organisations that have identified an issue or idea they would like to explore in more detail and are looking to fund a number of projects up to the value of £3000 each. As the title suggests we hope that this will stimulate innovative ideas between external partners and the University, hopefully leading to larger collaborations in the future.

Professor Richard Davies, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Engagement and Internationalization opened up proceedings by welcoming attendees and highlighting the commitment from the University to supporting the scheme as part of a wide range of engagement activities. There was then a number of short presentations outlining some of the varied collaborations we have already done with VCSE organisations from academic secondments into Wallsend Action for Youth, to working with IBM on delivering the small business mentoring project CAPTURED.

Once the project presentations finished, discussions began and the room began to fill up with animated conversations. Attendees didn’t need any further encouragement to network and with huge enthusiasm shared their ideas with staff and other local organisations.

To help capture some of the discussions there were postcards on all the tables where attendees could write down any initial ideas with a view to perhaps working them up into a larger projects. These were gathered at the end for follow-up when the scheme opens. It was really inspiring to hear about the work of various small, medium and large organisations in the North-East and as a member of the VCSE Steering Group, I am looking forward to hearing about how some of these conversations will grow into concrete ideas and longer term partnerships.

The fund was launched on the 20th July 2017 and will be open until 20th September 2017. For more information on the scheme and our previous partnerships please visit the VCSE pages here.