European academics were promised a transnational utopia for research with the potential for the ‘free flow’ of knowledge across European borders and disciplinary boundaries. The assurance came in the form of the EU’s most recent funding scheme, Horizon 2020. The programme is unique both in its financial pull i.e. the potential for millions of Euro awarded, and in its professed intention to bring together scholars from various geospatial contexts and disciplines in order to address ‘European challenges’. Notably, the programme resulted in large scale multidisciplinary knowledge collaborations, requiring the formation of extensive consortia. However, while H2020 fuelled European research, it might not be the collaborative bliss some academics hoped for.
In my research over the last two years, ethnographically studying scholarly practices in these EU funded transnational collaborations, I have continually come back to a central question, inspired by the feminist approach to studying the intersection of science and power: whose knowledge counts in these collaborative endeavours, when, and why? As I participate in the game of academia, I implicitly and explicitly feel the concept of ‘international collaboration’ and ‘multidisciplinarity’ as ambiguous buzzwords; taken for granted inevitabilities for any ‘successful’ scholar. That said, surprisingly little is known about how large-scale collaborative relationships form and function, and how power lives in spaces designed to be not only transnational but also interdisciplinary.
The EU Horizon 2020 structure of funding is a valuable site to analyse this. I understand it to be a supranational institution for knowledge production, and each consortium a window into the multi-faceted relations of power that coordinate transnational disciplinary collaborations. While some extremely valuable work has been done to understand the implications and dynamics of this type of large scale research, it often takes a perspective from ‘above’, analysing EU funding distribution and policy or disciplinary representation, with little emphasis on the relationships and practices of scholars themselves. It means we miss important details about how researchers come together and interact in these spaces and how this affects the knowledge produced.
I find this approach lacking, and echo Lorraine Code (2006) in advocating for thinking with a concept ecology of knowledge production. Principally, the idea calls for understanding knowledge production by taking seriously the local particularities and specificities in how relations of power manifest and become articulated in ways of knowing and doing, which can also be mapped across wider, heterogeneous epistemic terrains.
Navigating disciplinary alignments
Researcher: The economists are the high priestesses of our field. They come and present some very orthodox statistics about our topic that come from the economic imagination and there will never be an accommodation because we have fundamental differences about what constitutes data. For me data is an exchange in which there’s something given and something taken. Whereas their version of data is objective. Everything that I think is data, they feel is to be extinguished from their data universe.
Articulated here is a frustrating tension looming over multidisciplinary projects; a fundamental disjuncture in an assessment of ‘good’ data and analysis. Essentially, it’s a question of how we learn what good research looks like and how we (re)produce these ideals in our own approach to social science and in our choice of collaborators.
In large scale collaborations there is a dominant discipline, typically defined by the coordinating partner who creates the theoretical and conceptual alignment for the project at the proposal stage; setting its epistemological tone and acting as a ‘road map’ for collaboration. The researchers receiving large grants, and more importantly the institution they are affiliated with, are already in a position of privilege. You have to speak the ‘EU language’ for a good proposal, you need institutional research support (sometimes in the shape of information about the call for proposals before it goes out), you need to tap into an exclusive network of scholars in the field as part of your consortium…the list goes on. If you’re reading this and thinking these features seem self-evidently desirable for receiving research funds, you’re right. However, it’s no coincidence that these characteristics are also products of a system of academic meritocratic power that (re)produce various kinds of privilege; keeping the top researchers and institutions on top. This means that individuals with the power to define the epistemological and disciplinary ‘right’ ways of knowing and doing, and the road map for research collaboration, are inseparable from those people who embody other manifested forms of academic elite power and capital.
This is not without its tensions and challenges, of course. For example, sometimes the project’s core discipline is misaligned with pre-existing disciplinary hierarchies for a given empirical field; such is the case with the researcher quoted above who is frustrated that his approach to data (and science) is misunderstood by the dominant discipline in his field, the economic ‘high priestesses’. These misalignments, most notably manifested in the language used to describe certain empirical realities and scientific concepts, can sometimes end up creating deep divides socially and scientifically between partners.
The issue I raise here is the ambiguity that accompanies the continually celebrated concept of multidisciplinarity in large-scale collaborations. Specifically, we might consider how these collaborative spaces, and the funding structures fuelling them, represent an unbalanced playing field for navigating not only the correct ‘ways of knowing and doing’ in science, but also the power and tensions that shape these alignments.
What about the geographic context?
Project Coordinator: With the creation of the consortium you go for the good names and obviously we go for something not too elitist. Then, you have the, if not the natural, then the token partner in central-eastern Europe.
The creation of a successful and viable consortium relates to geospatial associations about where ‘good’ knowledge comes from. Maria do Mar Pereira (2017) frames this spatial association of knowledge through the lens of epistemic status of nations; the idea that epistemic status is unequally distributed across the globe, with ‘proper’ scholarliness and scientific work usually being associated with wealthy Global North countries.
At the formal level, H2020 collaborations often present a geographically well-represented Europe, which is important for the optics of the project i.e. showing the commission there is geographic representation in partners which is an implicit requirement to be awarded funds. However, this condition creates a complicated situation that might reproduce or contribute to the very power asymmetries it is in place to address. This is particularly clear in formation of consortia. Partners are referred to by their university affiliation, meaning a discussion of transnational collaboration must also consider movement between globally ranked universities. An academic might be working in a Polish university, but completed their PhD and post doc in London. Frequently, scholar(s) brought on as the ‘token central-eastern Europe’ partner have studied or worked in highly ranked institutions in influential countries; in my experience, it’s usually how the coordinator knows them and their work. Thus, the privilege of academic mobility, specifically to universities in these countries/institutions, is unmistakably painted as crucial if scholars from certain countries in Europe want to participate in large scale EU funded collaborations; it further solidifies the notion that ‘proper’ scholarliness and scientific work are shaped in these wealthy Global North countries.
Additionally, the timeline for when collaborators join a consortium has an impact on their role and influence over the process of knowledge production. In the application phase for H2020, there is a mad-dash to simultaneously create a consortium and nail down the details of the project and work packages. Similar to the coordinator quoted above, it’s common to go for the ‘good names’ or a ‘core group’. Essentially, those scholars considered crucial to have on board in order to get funding. Unsurprisingly, these names are often senior academics coming from highly ranked universities located in wealthy, influential EU countries e.g. France, Germany, and The Netherlands etc. Interestingly, much of the nailing down of the core ethos of the project actually happens in these beginning phases, with the details of work distribution coming later when more partners have joined. This is not to say that later partners don’t influence the project significantly. However, most often the central outline and road map has already taken shape, with later partners fleshing out the work packages.
This is crucial, because it means that the scientific knowledge taking shape as a result of these collaborative projects can be understood as a direct expression of those scholars who are in a position to define the projects scope and trajectory. This is especially true in H2020 collaborations, because once the grant agreement or ‘roadmap’ is signed with the commission, it acts as a contract; meaning it’s pretty important that the project runs as designed. Thus, there is something to be said for the kind of inadvertent power that stems from contributing to these early project phases, which seems to further exacerbate an already uneven geospatial playing field for knowledge production.
In practice, these kinds of large scale transnational multidisciplinarity collaborations aren’t going anywhere; especially those funded by the huge bodies like the EU. At the core of social scientific collaboration, researchers are not explicitly collaborating with disciplines or countries, although that’s how it’s often framed. Rather, scholars seek to collaborate with people they understand and relate to in their approach to knowledge production; a feeling of mutual understanding about what good science is and how it’s carried out. However, these feelings are shaped by global and disciplinary ideals about ‘good’ knowledge and ‘good’ collaborators. Thus, the inequalities that these historically shaped ideals produce are mirrored in who gets funding, their choice of collaborators, and the design of a project; even if the intent is to alter these asymmetries.
This post comes during an era of academia fixated on the prestige accompanying internationalisation and collaboration. Here, I urge criticality towards knowledge production in these collaborations. In particular, this means asking how certain ‘ways of knowing and doing’ can and do influence who occupies positions of explicit and implicit power in consortia, and vice versa. In principle, it means reflecting on how these defining people and moments can transform a seemingly neutral and inevitable form of collaborative knowledge production.
Rachel Fishberg is a Doctoral Researcher at Roskilde University. Her PhD focuses on the practices of social science collaborations in relation to politically shaped funding and forms of governance within the context of a globally changing knowledge market for academia. Rachel is a social anthropologist with a background in studying gendered success in Nordic academia. Her research interests include European politics of knowledge production, globalization of higher education, gender in academia, transnational and interdisciplinary collaboration, and feminist theories of practice. Her research is part of a larger project funded by Danmarks Frie Forskningsfond.