By Gabriele Bammer
Imagine a team of researchers tackling global health inequalities, with a focus on sanitation. The team comprises epidemiologists and biostatisticians interested both in measuring the extent of the problem and designing intervention trials, engineers investigating a range of sanitation options, anthropologists examining the cultural aspects of sanitation, economists and political scientists documenting the economic benefits and looking for policy levers to assist in making change happen.
The team is working at national policy levels and with a range of target communities seeking to engender small business interest in promoting new sanitation options, as well as individual and community behaviour change. There is collaboration with major international donors and non-government organisations. The team has a talented and charismatic leader.
What the team does not have is access to the full array of theory and methods for synthesising the input of the different disciplines, along with all the relevant stakeholder knowledge. Nor does it have the ability to bring to bear all the different ways of teasing out and taking into account the knowledge gaps – the unknowns. Finally the team cannot tap into the wealth of information about how to provide effective integrated research support for policy and practice change.
That is not to say that the team has no expertise at all in these areas. Some members have past experiences of working on similar projects to inform their input on this project. A few team members have taken an interest in particular bodies of relevant scholarship. One has developed expertise in the science of team science, especially conflict resolution, another in how government policy is made and a third in constructing causal loop diagrams. Nevertheless, the team is not able to draw on the extensive knowledge that is available because that knowledge is currently highly fragmented and it is no-one’s business to pull it together to make it accessible.
This imaginary scenario illustrates the rationale for my 2013 book, Disciplining Interdisciplinarity: Integration and Implementation Sciences for Researching Complex Real-World Problems, which laid out the case for a new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (I2S) to underpin research on complex real-world problems. Experts in this discipline bring the following expertise and skills to their teams, how to:
• synthesise relevant disciplinary and stakeholder perspectives,
• understand and manage unknowns, and
• ensure that both are used to inform and support policy and practice change.
Such a discipline would underpin a range of related approaches, including interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, action research, systems thinking, postnormal science, integrated assessment, and implementation science.
I2S specialists have a comprehensive understanding of each of these domains. They also have areas of deep expertise within them. For example, one specialist may focus on having very detailed knowledge about a particular modeling method for bringing together disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge. Another may concentrate on ways of understanding and dealing with unknown unknowns. A third may have in depth understanding of government policy making and the ways in which research input is likely to be most productive.
Further, I2S specialists have expertise in assessing which disciplines and stakeholders are relevant, framing problems and solutions, dealing with value conflicts, and gauging how circumstances affect the conduct of the research.
Let us stay with the team in our imagination for a few moments longer and modify it.
Imagine that no-one on the team actually has any relevant in-depth disciplinary training. The researchers in charge of epidemiology and biostatistics are actually trained in music and only know how to access some relevant data sets and once helped design a randomised controlled trial. Those responsible for the engineering segment know a lot about one sanitation option, but actually have little interest or experience in others. You get the picture…
This would be intolerable. Yet this is exactly the situation of the research world when it comes to integration and implementation practices for team-based research on complex real-world problems.
There is growing recognition that training in a new skill set is needed. For example, recently Katja Brundiers and Arnim Wiek advocated for Transacademic Interface Managers. Elsewhere Christine Hendren proposed Interdisciplinary Executive Scientists. There is an active community of Research Development Professionals, with Holly Falk-Krzesinski suggesting the potential for “a mutually advantageous relationship” between the Research Development Professionals and I2S specialists.
Right now such a specialisation does not exist. Nevertheless, one feature of the fragmented state of knowledge about research integration and implementation is that there are many pockets of researchers who have some relevant skills and the potential to be the foundation members of such a specialisation.
If you are reading this you are likely to be one of them. What do you think? Does belonging to and helping to shape a new discipline have appeal?
Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is a professor at The Australian National University in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (I2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She leads the theme “Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science” at the US National Socio-environmental Synthesis Center.