By Ismael Rafols
How can knowledge integration for addressing societal challenges be mapped, ‘measured’ and assessed?
In this blog post I argue that measuring averages or aggregates of ‘interdisciplinarity’ is not sufficiently focused for evaluating research aimed at societal contributions. Instead, one should take a portfolio approach to analyze knowledge integration as a systemic process over research landscapes; in particular, focusing on the directions, diversity and synergies of research trajectories.
There are two main reasons:
1. since knowledge integration for societal challenges is a systemic and dynamic process, we need broad and plural perspectives and therefore we should use a battery of analytical tools, as developed for example in research portfolio analysis, rather than a narrow focus on interdisciplinarity.
2. while interdisciplinarity is an important (but not the only) relevant concept in knowledge integration, the concept of interdisciplinarity is too ambiguous, diverse and contextual to be captured by traditional indicators, as discussed in my previous blog post ‘Measuring’ interdisciplinarity: from indicators to indicating.
Fostering plural innovation pathways in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity
It has long been argued that addressing societal challenges, such as climate change or COVID-19, benefits from the combination of disparate types of knowledge. Societal challenges are ‘wicked’ problems, in the sense that the framings of both the problems and the solutions are complex, disputed and uncertain. Under these conditions of ambiguity and uncertainty, research contributions are likely to come from combinations of diverse types of knowledge (or ways of knowing) – but it is also important to have plurality of research trajectories, each of them made of different epistemic combinations. In other words, we do not know or even agree in advance on what types of expertise are appropriate to tackle a given problem.
Therefore, rather than aiming at fostering a particular ‘melting pot’ of disciplines, research systems should produce a high number of disparate research trajectories – knowing that only some of them will be ever technically successful.
Moreover, different research and innovation pathways are not equally desirable from a public value perspective – directionality matters. Some solutions are more socially preferable than others depending on their effects on public goods such as equity or environmental sustainability. Which means that public investment, while keeping a diverse portfolio of research strategies, should favour those which are perceived as more socially robust and relatively underfunded by the private sector.
From ‘measuring’ interdisciplinarity to multi-level mapping of knowledge integration
Measurement approaches for research aiming to address societal challenges should reflect this turn towards a systemic perspective on knowledge integration.
‘Solutions’ to societal challenges will not emanate from 1,000 labs with the same combination of disciplines, but from labs of various epistemic combinations and social embeddings.
Therefore, measurement should not focus on an average degree of interdisciplinarity. Instead, it should focus on mapping the directions and diversity of research approaches. To do this, we need statistical descriptions of the vectors and distributions of research trajectories over knowledge landscapes. A framing in terms of research portfolios can help conduct this type of analyses.
Portfolio analysis: exploring directions, diversity and synergies
In a nutshell, the key idea is that for a given societal issue, the contribution of research should be explored by mapping the relevant types of knowledge over a research landscape. The portfolio or repertoire of a given laboratory, university or territory can then be visualised by projecting (overlaying) their activities of this research landscape, as illustrated in the figure below for ‘rice research.’
Three benefits of a portfolio approach are that it:
- provides information on the main directions that the research on a given topic is taking.
- highlights the diversity of research efforts, ie., whether investments are heavily concentrated in a few areas, or distributed across a variety of fields. In the face of uncertainty and contested views of preferred innovation pathways, one would expect a variety of pathways to be supported. This way bets are hedged against unexpected scientific results or social reactions to a certain approaches.
- helps think about the synergies or lack of thereof across research pathways by analysing the interrelations between innovation areas.
In summary, since social contributions are multifaceted, the analysis of research for societal challenges needs to adopt systemic perspectives, and thus take multidimensional forms such as conveyed by maps and networks.
Research portfolios analysis offers a battery of tools to conduct plural analysis. While interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary research is paramount at certain points, it is not required across the whole landscape. Therefore, rather than aggregates or averages, we need rich descriptions of knowledge landscapes including the directions, diversity and synergies of research trajectories.
How would a portfolio approach work for the societal issue that you address? Who are the key stakeholders and their social networks? What is the landscape of relevant types of knowledge? Where and how do diverse forms of knowledge interact and become integrated? What are the dominant and the marginalised trajectories?
To find out more:
This blog post draws on my presentation at the ‘Workshop on the implications of “convergence” for how the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics measures the science and engineering workforce’ (https://www.nationalacademies.org/event/10-22-2020/a-workshop-on-the-implications-of-convergence-for-how-the-national-center-for-science-and-engineering-statistics-measures-the-science-and-engineering-workforce). It was organised by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in October 2020. It is adapted from “Knowledge integration for societal challenges: from interdisciplinarity to research portfolio analysis” (https://leidenmadtrics.nl/articles/knowledge-integration-for-societal-challenges-from-interdisciplinarity-to-research-portfolio-analysis), which also contains additional references.
Ciarli, T. and Rafols, I. (2019). The relation between research priorities and societal demands: The case of rice. Research Policy, 48, 4: 949-967.
Biography: Ismael Rafols PhD is a senior researcher at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS) at Leiden University in the Netherlands and associate faculty at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. He works on science policy developing novel approaches to science and technology, including interdisciplinarity, indicators, using mixed-methods for informing evaluation, foresight and research strategies.