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'Sandpits' bring out worst in 'infantilised' researchers

Scholars say interdisciplinary workshops feel like a reality-TV race for cash. Zoë Corbyn writes

They have become a fashionable way of banging researchers' heads together and encouraging interdisciplinary partnerships.

But for some of those involved, so-called sandpits are living up to their name by infantilising scholars and producing other undesirable side-effects, too.

The workshops, which have been in vogue with UK funders for some time and are now spreading across the Atlantic to North America, are intended to help academics find research partners and develop projects across traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Sandpits, which were devised by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, typically involve about 30 selected researchers from different areas who are brought together for several days of intensive discussions about a particular topic.

The wheels of such events are oiled with the promise of up to £1 million in funding, which is dished out at the end through a group peer-review process.

Since the concept was conceived five years ago, about 25 sandpits have been held across the UK, and there are plans for more in the pipeline.

However, ahead of what is thought to be the first joint Arts and Humanities Research Council- EPSRC event, which is due to be held in Southampton next week, some arts and humanities researchers have criticised the concept, condemning it for micromanagement, "infantilising language" and for its "reality TV-like" approach to funding.

"Fundamentally, it is the idea that conversations people have with each other have to be managed and contained in some way that I object to," said Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick.

"I just don't think interdisciplinary thought happens in a managed fashion."

He added that the "sandpit" vocabulary was "explicitly infantilising" the research community.

"It regards us as noisy children who can be tamed and contained ... After the sandpit, will it be the playpen?" he said.

Professor Docherty's unease follows similar expressions of concern voiced at a conference put on by interdisciplinary arts and humanities journals earlier this year.

A researcher at the event described how a friend had relayed experiences of a sandpit that reminded him strongly of "reality TV", with scholars fighting over who would take home the cash.

Susan Morrell, head of the Ideas Factory at the EPSRC, which runs the sandpits, said researchers were not forced to attend the events.

She added that the technique had produced excellent results.

Facilitators were on hand to ensure that the competitive element was contained, she said, adding that "different (academic) cultures respond to being facilitated differently".

An internal EPSRC review of the sandpits is expected to be published shortly.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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