By Gabriele Bammer
Once researchers have a basic understanding of various types of diversity and their impacts on researching complex societal and environmental problems, what else is it useful for them to know? How can we move towards effective ways of incorporating more diversity into research?
It is important to recognize that, while the principle of increasing diversity is admirable, putting it into practice is hard, time-consuming and risky. Increasing diversity by embedding newcomers into existing teams or establishing new teams requires time and effort to reach new understandings and ways of working to ensure that no-one is marginalized or discounted, and to resolve miscommunications and disagreements.
There are also no easy answers to challenges such as understanding the kinds of diversity that are most useful for developing new insights, how much diversity projects can handle before it becomes unwieldy to manage, and the best ways to increase diversity in research on complex problems. In fact, the extent of the challenges is such that Katrin Prager has called for the establishment of “diversity science.”
Four suggestions for moving forward are briefly discussed next.
1. Fostering plural innovation pathways and research consortia
One way of increasing diversity in research on complex societal and environmental problems is to focus on the research landscape.
This is important because most researchers seek to join or create smoothly functioning groups where researchers and stakeholders build trust and respect by working together over multiple projects, which also involve training students and early career researchers to boost their ranks. Such continuity is attractive to funders and grant reviewers, who look for track records of successful past work, and also allows past negotiations about framing and conducting research to be built on. Furthermore, these negotiations will – often tacitly – have determined the extent of the diversity encompassed by the group, with researchers and stakeholders who do not ‘fit’ excluding themselves or being excluded.
Such groups, of course, have many advantages. But if the majority of groups in the research landscape are similar and primarily focus on incremental advances on each other’s work, the benefits of diversity in tackling complex problems will not be realised.
Diversity in the research landscape can be increased in at least two ways.
First, Ismael Rafols in his i2Insights contribution on using research portfolio analysis argues for a “plurality of research trajectories, each of them made of different epistemic combinations.” He goes on to say that “rather than aiming at fostering a particular ‘melting pot’ of disciplines, research systems should produce a high number of disparate research trajectories…”.
Second, research consortia bringing together multiple diverse projects are another possibility as discussed by Bruce Currie-Alder and Georgina Cundill Kemp in their i2Insights contribution.
2. Expanding multidisciplinary research
Increasing diversity is often easiest in new projects with new teams. As described in my i2Insights contribution on multidisciplinarity, a good starting point can be to invite multiple contributors to write reviews of the problem being tackled from their particular disciplinary or stakeholder perspective. This allows the richness of different problem definitions and approaches to be described and explored.
One use of such a multidisciplinary approach is to subsequently more consciously construct a diverse group to work on a specific project. By having written about their individual perspectives in detail, it allows the new group to be better prepared for the challenges occasioned by their diverse perspectives and to allocate the necessary time and other resources to gaining maximum benefit from the diversity.
Another benefit of multidisciplinary research stems from the common result that a neat synthesis of all the perspectives is not possible. This can be seen as a strength rather than a weakness, as it allows multiple users of the multidisciplinary reviews to integrate and benefit from the different perspectives in their own ways. For example, a decision maker may find that some perspectives inform a new policy proposal; an existing group of researchers may find that other perspectives provide new ideas to enhance their investigations; and, funders, by examining the overall combination of perspectives, may find ways of diversifying the research landscape as called for by Rafols or building a novel consortium as described by Currie-Alder and Cundill Kemp.
Finally, exploring incommensurability among perspectives is an important source of innovation as discussed by Darryn Reid in his i2Insights contribution.
3. Systematically learning from success
One place to look for lessons is the literature, experience and codes of practice developed for tackling mainstream diversity issues around gender identity, age, ethnicity, ability and more.
Valuable insights are also coming from those involved in decolonizing research and in valuing Indigenous, local and lived-experience knowledge, as described in the last blog post of the stakeholder engagement primer.
4. Systematically learning from failure
Fostering plural innovation pathways and research consortia, expanding multidisciplinary research and building on incommensurability as a source of innovation, and encouraging new groups to address complex problems are all high risk undertakings that are in their infancy. Developing effective ways of conducting such research activities is a matter of trial and error and, in order to move forward, it is important to catalogue what does not work as well as what does, including in:
- choosing effective tools for understanding diversity
- generating more comprehensive understanding and actions
- working together effectively.
The benefits of learning from failure are described in two i2Insights contributions: in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research by Dena Fam and Michael O’Rourke and in modelling by Randy Hunt.
In addition to improving the ways diversity is incorporated in research, the key next steps are pulling together methods for harnessing the benefits of diversity and for managing the challenges. There are a number of relevant i2Insights contributions indexed under the term ‘diversity’.
Anything to add?
Do you have additional perspectives to share about understanding diversity? Are there other aspects of diversity that you would include as fundamental?
Particularly welcome are examples and lessons of how you have dealt with understanding diversity in your research. Is there anything you wish you had known when you were starting out?
If you are new to thinking about diversity, is there anything else that would be useful?
Sources and references:
In addition to my own research and experience, the sources for this blog post are the i2Insights contributions cited.
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. i2S provides theory and methods for tackling complex societal and environmental problems, especially for synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns, and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She is also a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange.
The Understanding Diversity Primer comprises the following blog posts:
1. Why diversity? (April 21, 2022)
2. Mental models (April 28, 2022)
3. Perceptions of good research (May 5, 2022)
4. Power (May 12, 2022)
5. Values (May 19, 2022)
6. Interests (May 26, 2022)
7. Culture (June 2, 2022)
8. Personality (June 9, 2022)
9. Team roles (June 16, 2022)
This blog post:
10. Advanced considerations (June 23, 2022)