Impact Blog

Humanities and sciences collaborate to solve ‘wicked problems’ through research

November 2022
Professor Catharine Coleborne, Immediate Past President Australian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities & Professor Melissa Brown, President Australian Council of Deans of Science.


Our two peak bodies have started new conversations about the benefits of collaboration across the arts, social sciences and humanities and the sciences. In this reflection, we show how graduate research continues to provide new thinking for Australians. We do not see research as bounded by disciplines but rather, that the most productive and meaningful research outcomes happen when areas of knowledge and practice come together and complement one another.

In particular, cross-disciplinary inquiry by higher degree research students is important to our future. From solutions to the climate crisis, understanding the social implications of artificial intelligence, to benefitting from the significant integration of Indigenous knowledge with western science, postgraduate research is a powerhouse of production, problem-solving and blue-sky investigation in this country.

There are more than 58,000 PhD students in Australia. They study across all disciplines and while their studies provide them with training for influential careers, the outcomes of their research can change the way we live.

Our postgraduates go on to become policymakers, scientists, captains of industry, researchers, artists, agronomists and historians.

The role the arts, social sciences and humanities can play is significant – especially when taken in an interdisciplinary context.

Collaboration between those disciplines and the world of scientific investigation are leading to outcomes neither one could achieve without the other, with impact across Australian and global society, culture, environment and the economy.

Some of the examples we use help to illustrate the successes we see in research that has managed to leverage disciplinary boundaries and to place ideas inside exciting frameworks for discovery.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is one area that might be seen as a technical area of research, with more and more PhD students looking at humans interact with machines and how they interact with us. Some philosophers have also contributed to deep thinking about AI and humanity as well as applications and AI design.

Finalist in the 2022 Women in AI Awards Nina Rajcic is using her research to explore how affective information can foster creative collaborations between humans and machines. She is an artist as well as a developer with a background in particle physics.

By combining creative arts with scientific enquiry, she wants to find out how machines understand human emotion and what is needed to foster real-time creative collaboration between human and machine.

Behavioural change has often been cited as a critical area when addressing climate change. Students across Australia are engaging in social science-based studies to find out how the science behind climate solutions can be implemented to drive responsive changes in society.

The question of how much Australians are willing to give up and go without is crucial to policy makers who must define the scope of change that can be reasonably implemented when looking to solve the climate crisis.

The intersections between western science and Indigenous knowledge are crucial to our understanding of the most ancient culture on earth as well as broader Australian society and environment.

Indigenous knowledge is casting new light and context on scientific discoveries and producing its own breakthroughs and impact.

Karin Gerhardt, a PhD student from James Cook University, is collaborating with Traditional Owners in Far North Queensland. She is looking at the cultural significance of sharks and rays and mapping Indigenous knowledge.

This collaborative research offers important understandings on using Indigenous knowledge and western science to help address climate change impacts.

The cultural, environmental, intellectual and economic capital of our nation benefits from ensuring that these researchers and the thousands more like them are represented and supported as they seek to improve social, economic, scientific and environmental outcomes for Australians.

Universities and research institutions across Australia as well as not-for-profit entities like the Australian Council of Graduate Research work to foster, support and promote the continuous improvement of national standards for all higher degree by research programs.

We are firmly convinced that by working together, we can demonstrate the importance of the connections between sciences and the arts, social sciences and humanities, and to enable world-changing outcomes and new ways thinking in students and researchers into the future.

Note: Professor Coleborne and Professor Brown spoke at the September DASSH conference held in Brisbane as part of a panel facilitated by Professor Rachel Parker, Director of the Global Change Institute, University of Queensland


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