Finding expertise in research integration and implementation to tackle complex problems

By Gabriele Bammer

Author - Gabriele Bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

When you are pulling together a team to tackle a complex societal or environmental problem, where can you find the expertise to deal with:

  • Research integration challenges such as: deciding which disciplines and stakeholders to include, setting limits around the problem, dealing with competing problem definitions, managing intractable unknowns, and synthesising different perspectives?
  • Research implementation challenges such as: identifying likely change agents, taking context into account, developing tools and processes for research to support more effective actions to ameliorate the problem?

Currently there is no one place to find all this expertise, but there are two major groups who can contribute parts of it:

  1. Communities of researchers who have developed specific approaches to tackling complex societal and environmental problems, such as interdisciplinarity, systems thinking, and action research.
  2. Individual researchers and research groups who have developed expertise by tackling specific cases and who, by moving from one problem to another, have progressively built useful case-based expertise.

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

Specific approaches

Researchers with a range of expertise in research integration and implementation can be found in the following 14 communities (some with multiple sub-communities):

  • Action research
  • Complex project management
  • Complex systems science
  • Design science
  • Integrated assessment
  • Integration and implementation sciences (i2S)
  • Interdisciplinarity
  • Mode 2
  • Operational research, including community operational research
  • Post-normal science
  • Sustainability science
  • Sustainability transitions
  • Systems thinking, including systems analysis, systems engineering, the viable system model, systems failure, soft systems thinking, critical systems thinking, system dynamics (including participatory system dynamics), systemic intervention
  • Transdisciplinarity.

These communities are largely separate and they approach complex societal and environmental problems in different ways, with, for example, some focusing on interconnections between problems and people, others on stakeholders, and others on prototype solutions. None covers the whole terrain, but each offers a significant set of expertise and there are many overlaps among the approaches.

In addition, specific aspects of research integration and implementation are tackled by researchers from the 10 communities listed in the table below.

bammer_finding-expertise-to-deal-with-complex-problems

Where can I find out more?

Most of these 24 groups have produced handbooks and other major academic works (see references in Bammer et al., 2020) and formed professional associations and networks, many of which are described in: https://i2s.anu.edu.au/resources/associations_networks/.

Case-based expertise

Although there are many specific approaches, most have only a relatively small number of members (usually only in the hundreds). There are many more researchers and research teams who are not involved with these specific approaches, but who have developed expertise in research integration and implementation by working on complex real-world problems.

While some case-based experience is written up in peer-reviewed publications and the grey literature, much is undocumented. This is partly because, as I described in an earlier blog post, there are no accepted formats for describing this expertise and partly because much of the expertise is tacit.

Nevertheless, from time to time case-based expertise is synthesised and codified. Two useful examples are:

  1. a toolkit for engaging and influencing policy developed from a wide array of projects undertaken by the RAPID (Research and Policy in Development) program of the UK’s Overseas Development Institute
  2. a compilation of collaboration methods and processes largely based on lessons learnt in resolving conflicts among researchers at the US National Cancer Institute. (The development of this toolkit pre-dated the establishment of the science of team science community and the toolkit is now one of the key reference works for that community.)

Where can I find out more?

It is a lot harder to access case-based expertise, especially when developed by individuals and small groups. This i2Insights blog and the resources on the i2S website aim to provide conduits to such expertise.

Additional thoughts

There are also essential elements of expertise developed by communities of researchers who investigate intersecting issues such as unknowns and innovation, as described in more detail in Bammer et al. (2020).

As will be evident from this blog post, fragmentation is a major challenge to finding expertise in research integration and implementation for tackling complex societal and environmental problems. Specific approaches are starting to recognise and build on interconnections among them, as well as to embrace case-based experience. More researchers are also starting to look to what specific approaches can offer.

An earlier blog post described the specifics of expertise in research integration and implementation.

Do you identify with a specific approach or have you built case-based expertise in research integration and implementation? Or have you developed expertise some other way? Have any specific approaches been missed? How do you think fragmentation could best be overcome?

To find out more:
Bammer, G., O’Rourke, M., O’Connell, D., Neuhauser, L., Midgley, G., Klein, J. T., Grigg, N. J., Gadlin, H., Elsum, I. R., Bursztyn, M., Fulton, E. A., Pohl, C., Smithson, M., Vilsmaier, U., Bergmann, M., Jaeger, J., Merkx, F., Vienni Baptista, B., Burgman, M. A., Walker, D. H., Young, J., Bradbury, H., Crawford, L., Haryanto, B., Pachanee, C., Polk, M. and Richardson, G. P. (2020). Expertise in research integration and implementation for tackling complex problems: when is it needed, where can it be found and how can it be strengthened? Palgrave Communications: 6, 5. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-019-0380-0; or, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-019-0380-0

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 also a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany. 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.

Gabriele Bammer is a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange, which is in the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University.

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