By The Care Operative and “Transforming Academia” workshop participants at 2021 International Transdisciplinarity Conference
What do we want academia to be like in 2050? Is academia on the right track? What will it take to agree on and realize a joint vision that can steer life in science towards a more sustainable and agreeable place to work, to learn, to share and to appreciate knowledge?
The issues raised here are based on a workshop with more than 40 participants at the International Transdisciplinarity Conference 2021. The discussion was initiated and hosted by the Careoperative, a leadership collective motivated to explore, embody and pollinate transformational sustainability and transdisciplinary research.
Careoperative’s discussion springboard
As a starting point for the discussion, Careoperative members shared ideas on how the current academic system discourages the kinds of leadership required for sustainability transformations (Care et al. 2021).
Academia currently focuses on output-based metrics and internationally-mobile careers that favour individuals who have the opportunity, privilege, and ability to pursue prestige. As such, academia rewards and promotes personal excellence within specific disciplines.
The Careoperative has proposed and sought to model an alternative set of practices that embody a new model of collective leadership, one that embraces critical reflection, inclusivity and care. Most notably, the Careoperative approach includes fundamental changes in the structure of academia:
- from metrics- to merits-based rewards,
- from a focus on career to care, and
- from discipline-bounded to inter- and trans-disciplinary research.
For broader change to happen, academic organisations need to reorient their training programs, work ethic, and reward systems to encourage collective excellence. Such organisations also need to allow space for future leaders to develop and enact radically reimagined visions of how to lead as a collective with care for people and the planet.
A vision for academia in 2050
During the workshop, an invited panel offered diverse perspectives of the academic system; as funders (Jeroen Guerts), institute leaders (Gabriele Bammer, Thomas Breu), a centre researcher (Øyvind Paasche), and a mid-career researcher (Jessica Cockburn). A lively discussion with participants and Careoperative members built on these perspectives, proposing that a transformed academia in 2050 requires progress towards the following:
- Transdisciplinary science is valued on equal terms with monodisciplinary science; transdisciplinary scientists are recognized for their skills, practice, and community of practice.
- Porous boundaries and movement in and out of academia allow for more “real world” experiences to shape and advance academic practice.
- Entry into and progress through academic careers is characterised by accessibility, diversity and transparency, with decisions made fairly.
- Cooperation and team science are the norm. The myth of the lone individual who creates knowledge and succeeds purely on their own merits is a thing of the past.
- Research questions are not determined solely within academia or by academics working alone, but collectively with a diverse range of societal actors.
- 1) Scientific rigour, 2) societal impact and engagement, and 3) care towards self and others are equally valued. In all three, quality of contribution is valued over quantity of output.
How can we move towards this future?
Steps to move towards these aspirations, on a personal scale and more systemically, include:
- Taking inspiration from the spekboom plant (Portulacaria afra) by creating nourishing and enabling environments through and around immediate relationships (including supervision) to provide inclusive spaces for multiple voices and approaches, also envisioned as microhabitats.
- Initiating and encouraging bottom-up initiatives.
- Undertaking research on research practice itself.
- Seeking novel funding arrangements.
- Doing less, better. Avoiding redundant publications by encouraging more reading and careful editorial work as well as evaluating academic contributions based on quality not quantity.
- Developing and disseminating innovations to explain different team member contributions, such as narrative CVs (curriculum vitae).
Transformational change will also require connection and alignment across hierarchies and sectors within academia, including:
- Forming multi-actor consortia and long-term networks.
- Enabling dialogues between universities and funders.
- Developing an equivalent to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) focused on academia, perhaps an International Panel for Academic Change (IPAC).
- Agreeing on a direction before we set sail.
Radically redesigning academia raises several practical and logistical issues, including:
- much has already been said and written about the need for better versions of academia. Given their limited impact, what can we add? We need to acknowledge and credit previous efforts in addressing transformation of academia, and examine why they have not achieved significant change.
- conversations like those on the panel are inevitably limited by engaging only those who already agree with the message. We struggle to influence those who disagree or reach those who have not yet heard or choose not to listen, including those with powerful interests in maintaining the status quo. We need to start having conversations with those who appear to be happy with the status quo and see where our vision for the future may connect with theirs.
- instigating change takes time. Ways of doing things have become so normalized within the dominant academic culture that they often go unquestioned. We need to free ourselves from more peripheral tasks (eg., those related to administration) to be able to devote more time to shaping transformation. This will allow us to start looking for answers, engaging in dialogue, and focus on why transformational change is important.
- creating and maintaining alliances is central to many of the actions key to shaping change that we would like to invest in. Such alliances are both in and out of academia, and between different parts of the globe. We will be stronger if we connect with groups and initiatives with similar aspirations, for example, action researchers and artists, to strengthen our collective activities. Creating a stronger international presence might be achieved by creating a network between individuals and groups working to transform academia to make it a more caring place. This requires a strong sense of community and collective energy to keep such a network strong and to drive positive change.
- funders and others may be using “transdisciplinarity” because it is a buzzword, without a full understanding or proper evaluation of the kind of research it encompasses. Effective evaluation needs to include a focus on the defining aspects of transdisciplinarity. It also needs to consider that not all outputs are measurable, especially when research questions are defined in collaboration with societal actors.
A useful first step is to gather relevant materials and initiatives so that, collectively, we can learn and begin to improve our practices, centring care in our own work, thereby enabling the future we envision. We list the references we are aware of immediately below.
What do you think of the proposed ideas? Are there additional issues to take into consideration for transforming academia? How do we find those with an appetite for change and ready to work for it? What do you think the next steps should be?
Resources that provide different entry points to transforming academia
- An initiative for better science: Better Science. (2022). We want a better academic culture for all. (Online): https://betterscience.ch/en/#/
- A related business-driven discussion: University Industry Innovation Network. (2022). The Future of Universities Thoughtbook. (Online): https://futureuniversities.com/
- Paasche, Øyvind, and Henrik Österblom. “Unsustainable Science.” One Earth 1, no. 1 (September 20, 2019): 39–42. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2019.08.011
- Fazey, Ioan, Niko Schäpke, Guido Caniglia, Anthony Hodgson, Ian Kendrick, Christopher Lyon, Glenn Page, et al. “Transforming Knowledge Systems for Life on Earth: Visions of Future Systems and How to Get There.” Energy Research & Social Science 70 (December 1, 2020): 101724. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2020.101724. See also https://i2insights.org/2021/02/23/knowledge-systems-transformation/
- Pascoe, S., Sanders, A., Rawluk, A., Satizábal, P. & Toumbourou, T. Intervention (2020) “Holding Space for Alternative Futures in Academia and Beyond”. Antipode Online. (Online): https://antipodeonline.org/2020/04/22/holding-space-for-alternative-futures-in-academia-and-beyond/
- Sellberg, My M., Jessica Cockburn, Petra B. Holden, and David P. M. Lam. “Towards a Caring Transdisciplinary Research Practice: Navigating Science, Society and Self.” Ecosystems and People 17, no. 1 (January 1, 2021): 292–305. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1080/26395916.2021.1931452
- Staffa, Rachel K., Maraja Riechers, and Berta Martín-López. “A Feminist Ethos for Caring Knowledge Production in Transdisciplinary Sustainability Science.” Sustainability Science, no. 0123456789 (2021). (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-021-01064-0
- Reimagining the Academy: ShiFting Towards Kindness, Connection, and an Ethics of Care. (Online): https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-75859-2
- Care, O., M. J. Bernstein, M. Chapman, I. Diaz Reviriego, G. Dressler, M. R. Felipe-Lucia, C. Friis, et al. 2021. “Creating Leadership Collectives for Sustainability Transformations.” Sustainability Science, March. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-021-00909-y
- Special issue on “Re-Purposing Universities for Sustainable Human Progress”. (Online): https://www.frontiersin.org/research-topics/14778/re-purposing-universities-for-sustainable-human-progress
Care, O., M. J. Bernstein, M. Chapman, I. Diaz Reviriego, G. Dressler, M. R. Felipe-Lucia, C. Friis, et al. 2021. “Creating Leadership Collectives for Sustainability Transformations.” Sustainability Science, 16 (March) 703-708. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-021-00909-y
The combined image of all the authors (JPEG 161KB) can also be opened via this link.
Top row: The Care Operative (group photo)
Second row (left to right): Julie G. Zähringer, Hannah Pitt, Maria L. Kernecker, Sonia Graham
Third row (left to right): Michael J. Bernstein, Øyvind Paasche, Jessica Cockburn, Thomas Breu
Second last row (left to right): Gabriele Bammer, Markus Szaguhn, Giulia Sonetti, Niko Schäpke
Last row (left to right): Sara Mynott, Ulrike Kuchner, Livia Fritz
The Care Operative (members listed alphabetically, *denotes authors most involved in the development of this blog post, their biographies are listed below; biographies of other Care Operative members can be found at https://i2insights.org/2020/06/16/caring-online-workshops/:
Michael J. Bernstein*, Mollie Chapman, Isabel Díaz-Reviriego, Gunnar Dressler, Maria Felipe-Lucia, Cecilie Friis, Sonia Graham*, Hendrik Haenke, L. Jamila Haider, Mónica Hernández Morcillo, Harry Hoffmann, Maria L. Kernecker*, Poppy Nicol, Concepción Piñeiro, Hannah Pitt*, Caroline Schill, Verena Seufert, Kesheng Shu, Vivian Valencia, Julie G. Zaehringer*
Biography: Julie G. Zaehringer PhD is Assistant Professor for Land Systems and Sustainability Transformation with the Wyss Academy for Nature, Centre for Development and Environment, and the Institute of Geography at the University of Bern, Switzerland. She is conducting transdisciplinary research to identify options that help to mitigate trade-offs between different land uses for sustainable development along tropical forest frontiers.
Biography: Hannah Pitt PhD is a Lecturer in Environmental Geography at Cardiff University, UK. Her work focuses on knowledge and skills in food production, and takes a particular interest in relationships between people and plants.
Biography: Maria Kernecker PhD is a researcher at the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research in Müncheberg, Germany. She explores how biodiversity conservation and agriculture can be integrated at field and landscape scale using social-ecological and transdisciplinary approaches.
Biography: Sonia Graham PhD is a DECRA Research Fellow in the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities, University of Wollongong, Australia. She is a human geographer who investigates environmental collective action, justice, and values in the context of climate adaptation and invasive species management.
Biography: Michael J. Bernstein PhD is a Scientist in the Center for Innovation Systems and Policy at the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology, GmbH and an Assistant Research Professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, USA. He applies descriptive and participatory social science research methods to align research and innovation with long-term societal interests, like sustainability.
Biography: Øyvind Paasche PhD is the Head of Innovation at Climate Futures, and a Senior Scientist with the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Change and NORCE Norwegian Research Centre in Bergen, Norway. He has a long-term interest in climate variability and how scientific information is handled, understood, and used by stakeholders and policymakers.
Biography: Jessica Cockburn PhD is a Lecturer in Environmental Science at Rhodes University, Makhanda, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Her work focuses on multistakeholder collaboration for integrated landscape management. She is particularly interested in transdisciplinary approaches, and the experiences of early-career researchers in sustainability science.
Biography: Thomas Breu PhD is Professor for Sustainable Development and Director of the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) at the University of Bern, Switzerland. His research focuses on the effects of globalization on natural resources and the livelihoods of rural populations in developing countries.
Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is Professor of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University in Canberra. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences 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.
Biography: Markus Szaguhn is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the KIT Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany and is interested in transformative sustainability science, transdisciplinary real-world-labs and education for sustainable development.
Biography: Giulia Sonetti PhD is a transdisciplinary researcher at CENSE – Center for Environmental and Sustainability Research in Lisbon, Portugal, and fellow at the Postdoc Academy for Transformational Leadership funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung Foundation. She is currently principal investigator of the research project “TrUST – Transdisciplinarity for Urban Sustainability Transition”.
Biography: Niko Schäpke PhD is an assistant professor at the University of Freiburg, Germany. He is an interdisciplinary social scientist interested in the governance of sustainability transformations. His research focus is on settings and methods of transdisciplinary and action-oriented sustainability science as well as dynamics of human agency and spaces for societal learning and change.
Biography: Sara Mynott PhD is an interdisciplinary marine scientist, driven by a desire to understand human impacts on marine systems and how we might mitigate them to produce the best outcomes for society and the environment. She is a Knowledge Broker and Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Victoria in Canada and is also affiliated with the Centre for Marine Socioecology at the University of Tasmania in Australia.
Biography: Ulrike Kuchner PhD is an astronomer artist, curator and creative producer both in astronomy and in the inter- and transdisciplinary context of ArtScience. As an astronomer, she is a research fellow at the University of Nottingham in the UK. As an artist and interdisciplinary researcher, she joins interdisciplinary creative process of other art-scientists and science-artists as curator, mentor and coordinator of the SEADS network (Space Ecology Art and Design) to integrate different approaches and knowledge systems.
Biography: Livia Fritz PhD is a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory on Human-Environment Relations in Urban Systems at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne. As a social scientist in an interdisciplinary environment, she explores how social theories can support us in making sense of what happens within science-policy-society systems and in identifying levers for improving these complex interfaces for sustainability governance.