What’s required for universities to address complex societal challenges?

By David D. Hart and Linda Silka

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1. David D. Hart (biography)
2. Linda Silka (biography)

How can universities use their broad array of expertise to help in understanding and addressing complex challenges, including pandemics, environmental degradation, poverty and climate change?

For more than a decade, we have been engaged in an innovative collaboration with more than 200 faculty from nearly 30 academic disciplines to align university research with societal needs. We conceived of this initiative as an “institutional experiment,” in which our public university in the US state of Maine served as the “laboratory.”

Given Maine’s priorities and our collective expertise, we focused these problem-solving efforts on the challenge of sustainable development, which requires a dual focus on improving human well-being and protecting the environment.

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Enabling divergent and convergent thinking in cross-disciplinary graduate students

By Gemma Jiang

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Gemma Jiang (biography)

How can we enable graduate students to think in ways that open new possibilities, as well as to make good decisions based on diverse cross-disciplinary insights?

Here I describe how we have embedded 14 graduate students in a research team with nine faculty from four academic institutes, representing six disciplines (for simplicity only three disciplines – engineering, economics, and anthropology – are considered here). Our research addresses the circular economy. I have developed a three-step model (summarised in the figure below) to operationalize the “divergence-convergence diamond,” which is key to our teaching method.

The “divergence – convergence diamond” is widely used in design thinking. The divergent mode helps open new possibilities while the convergent mode helps evaluate what you have and make decisions.

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Five organizational features for successful interdisciplinary research

By Jessica Blythe and Chris Cvitanovic

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1. Jessica Blythe (biography)
2. Chris Cvitanovic (biography)

How can significant challenges associated with doing interdisciplinary research be overcome? What are the best ways to build institutional capacity and structures that support interdisciplinary research?

We have identified five key organizational features that enable successful interdisciplinary research. These are based on an evaluation of the Centre for Marine Socioecology in Tasmania, Australia, which brings together disciplinary expertise in physics, law, economics, biology, sociology and governance. We obtained perspectives across all disciplines and career stages from PhD students to the leadership team.

The five organizational features, also shown in the figure below, are:

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A successful model of integration in an art-science project

By Diaa Ahmed Mohamed Ahmedien

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Diaa Ahmed Mohamed Ahmedien (biography)

How can new-media art-science projects move beyond raising public awareness of science to achieve a high level of layperson involvement in a scientific process? How can such projects use two-path integration:

  1. across multiple academic disciplines, and
  2. including the participation of laypeople?

In 2017, I developed an interactive game, using a holographic scene, where participants had to interact physically with their neural activities to complete the required processes and tasks (see the figure immediately below). A participant was attached to EEG (electroencephalography) monitoring and then, when standing at a table that had a set of holographic plates laid out upon it, they had to puzzle-out a hologram of a toy.

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Four lessons for operating in a different cultural environment

By Nithya Ramachandran

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Nithya Ramachandran (biography)

What does it take to operate successfully in a university located in a different culture?

I am an Indian academician working in the Middle-East, specifically in the Sultanate of Oman and share four lessons about teaching and working in a different cultural context. Although the specifics will vary depending on the culture, the general lessons are likely to be more widely applicable.

The four general lessons are:

  1. Make the most of mentoring
  2. Be open and responsive to feedback
  3. Reinforce positive aspects of student behaviours and find ways to counteract the negative
  4. Enjoy the diversity.

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Six lessons from students about transdisciplinary learning

By Irina Dallo, Jan Freihardt and Juanita von Rothkirch

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1. Irina Dallo (biography)
2. Jan Freihardt (biography)
3. Juanita von Rothkirch (biography)

What is an effective way of providing students with practical experience in stakeholder engagement? How can students learn to communicate and engage with community members on a transdisciplinary project, as well as how to create a space for those community members to reflect on their daily lives through interactions and discussions with the student outsiders? What makes it possible for students to broaden their horizons and to acquire new competences and skills?

We present our reflections on how the Winter School 2020 “Science meets Practice” run by ETH Zürich successfully contributed to our transdisciplinary learning process. We suggest there are six key lessons for those who want to design a successful course.

Lesson 1: A diverse and motivated group

A key element in fostering the transdisciplinary learning process was the diversity of the participant cohort. Not only were we from a variety of different disciplines and at different career stages, but we were also from different countries with different cultures. This variety enabled us to reflect about and approach the transdisciplinary process from different angles.

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How librarians contribute to interdisciplinary research teams

By Kelly Miller and Kineret Ben-Knaan

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1. Kelly Miller (biography)
2. Kineret Ben-Knaan (biography)

What can librarians contribute to interdisciplinary research teams working on complex problems? We suggest that librarians add value in the following three ways:

  1. finding and accessing information resources across disciplines
  2. connecting teams to experts and resources, and
  3. improving collaboration and communication strategies.

Our experience comes from being part of the University of Miami’s Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge initiative, also known as U-LINK, which aims to address the world’s most compelling problems through interdisciplinary inquiry. From 2018-2020, teams of scholars from multiple disciplines have received funding to pursue solutions to global challenges.

Librarians have been embedded in each of the teams.

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Are research institutes fulfilling their interdisciplinary roles in universities?

By Paul Bolger

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Paul Bolger (biography)

The number of research centres and institutes within universities has exploded in the last two decades, but how effective have they been in delivering on their interdisciplinary goals?

A key raison d’etre for establishing a research centre or institute is to bring together researchers from multiple disciplines in a particular area of research study, and to foster interdisciplinary collaboration. You don’t have to read too far into mission statements and websites to encounter a goal to be cross-, multi-, inter-, or trans- disciplinary.

The establishment of interdisciplinary research centres and institutes has been a key structural response for universities interested in embedding interdisciplinarity within the university research system, as it enables universities to retain traditional departments while having a locus to address the grand challenges of society in an interdisciplinary approach.

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How can co-labouring improve transdisciplinary research?

By Robert Pijpers and Sabine Luning

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1. Robert Pijpers (biography)
2. Sabine Luning (biography)

What do we mean by co-labouring? What practices does it involve? How can it enhance interactions among researchers and key stakeholders in transdisciplinary research?

Defining co-labouring

Choosing the notion of ‘co-labouring’ in our transdisciplinary project stems from an awareness that creating alternative perspectives, eg., on sustainable futures for mining, is a complex endeavor. Ideas of researchers wanting to give voice to unheard groups at the margin are too often based on simple models of translation. These assumptions underestimate what gets lost in translation, or the gaps in understandings between different groups of stakeholders.

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Researcher activism: A voice of experience

By Dorothy Broom

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Dorothy Broom (biography)

In reflecting on my researcher-activist role in women’s health, I’ve come up with six tips that may provide guidance to those embarking on such a role. The lessons I draw can also be relevant in other fields of endeavour, in population health, environmental research and beyond.

Tip 1: Build your legitimacy with those you are aiming to influence and those you are advocating for

My academic research in the 1980s and 90s on the politics of women’s health was distinct from my feminist political activism. Prompted by intellectual curiosity, I developed a research profile that fortuitously prepared me to take on an advocacy role at a time of major policy foment.

My publications and conference presentations gave me legitimacy with public servants charged with policy and program development; while my personal involvement in feminist social action gave me a different kind of credibility with social-movement actors.

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Implementation during a time of crisis: The critical role of trusting relationships

By Allison Metz

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Allison Metz (biography)

Are there lessons we can learn from the current response of service systems which have galvanized into action to meet the needs of children and families during the COVID-19 pandemic? How does the response of service systems affect our hypotheses about how change happens at scale?

In my professional role providing implementation support to public service systems, I’ve observed these systems responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with urgency and agility. The urgency is to be expected, but the agility has inspired me.

The agility runs counter to accepted wisdom in implementation science that implementation takes time.

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Strategies to deal with forced hostile collaborations

By Kristine Lund

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Kristine Lund (biography)

What can you do when a national funding umbrella organization asks you to add a new partner to a collaborative project, especially when that partner has a poor reputation for collaborating?

Here I share lessons based on my experience of leading a multi-million Euro grant, where two interdisciplinary language sciences laboratories, which had worked together successfully for 8 years, were preparing a bid for a 5-year continuation in funding. In the process of preparing that bid, our national umbrella organization suggested that a third language sciences laboratory that had strong links to neurosciences join the consortium.

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