Acknowledging and responding to criticisms of interdisciplinarity / Reconnaître et répondre aux critiques de l’interdisciplinarité

By Romain Sauzet

A French version of this post is available

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Romain Sauzet (biography)

What are the core arguments that critics of interdisciplinarity employ? Which of these criticisms can help to clarify what interdisciplinarity is and what it isn’t?

While some of the criticisms of interdisciplinarity stem from a general misunderstanding of its purpose or from a bad experience, others seem well-founded. Thus, while some must be rejected, others should be accepted.

I outline five different types of criticisms drawn from three main sources:(1) academic writings (see reference list), (2) an empirical survey on interdisciplinarity (Sauzet 2017) (3) informal discussions.

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Providing a richer assessment of research influence and impact

By Gabriele Bammer

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Gabriele Bammer (biography)

How can we affirm, value and capitalise on the unique strengths that each individual brings to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research? In particular, how can we capture diversity across individuals, as well as the richness and distinctness of each individual’s influence and impact?

In the course of writing ten reflective narratives (nine single-authored and one co-authored), eleven of us stumbled on a technique that we think could have broader utility in assessing influence and impact, especially in research but also in education (Bammer et al., 2019).

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A framework to evaluate the impacts of research on policy and practice

By Laura Meagher and David Edwards

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Laura Meagher (biography)

What is meant by impact generation and how can it be facilitated, captured and shared? How can researchers be empowered to think beyond ‘instrumental’ impact and identify other changes generated by their work? How can the cloud of complexity be dispersed so that numerous factors affecting development of impacts can be seen? How can a way be opened for researchers to step back and reflect critically on what happened and what could be improved in the future? How can research teams and stakeholders translate isolated examples of impact and causes of impact into narratives for both learning and dissemination?

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Three “must have” steps to improve education for collaborative problem solving

By Stephen M. Fiore

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Stephen M. Fiore (biography)

Many environmental, social, and public health problems require collaborative problem solving because they are too complex for an individual to work through alone. This requires a research and technical workforce that is better prepared for collaborative problem solving. How can this be supported by educational programs from kindergarten through college? How can we ensure that the next generation of researchers and engineers are able to effectively engage in team science?

Drawing from disciplines that study cognition, collaboration, and learning, colleagues and I (Graesser et al., 2018) make three key recommendations to improve research and education with a focus on instruction, opportunities to practice, and assessment. Across these is the need to attend to the core features of teamwork as identified in the broad research literature on groups and teams.

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Assessing research contribution claims: The “what else test”

By Jess Dart

Jess Dart (biography)

In situations where multiple factors, in addition to your research, are likely to have caused an observed policy or practice change, how can you measure your contribution? How can you be sure that the changes would not have happened anyway?

In making contribution claims there are three levels of rigour, each requiring more evaluation expertise and resourcing. These are summarised in the table below. The focus in this blog post is on the basic or minimum level of evaluation and specifically on the “what else test.”

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Producing evaluation and communication strategies in tandem

By Ricardo Ramírez and Dal Brodhead

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Ricardo Ramírez (biography)

How can projects produce evaluation and communication strategies in tandem? Why should they even try? A major benefit of helping projects produce evaluation and communication strategies at the same time is that it helps projects clarify their theories of change; it helps teams be specific and explicit about their actions. Before returning to the benefits, let us begin with how we mentor projects to use this approach.

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Doing a transdisciplinary PhD? Four tips to convince the examiners about your data

By Jane Palmer, Dena Fam, Tanzi Smith and Jenny Kent

How can research writing best be crafted to present transdisciplinarity? How can doctoral candidates effectively communicate to examiners a clear understanding of ‘data’, what it is and how the thesis uses it convincingly?

The authors have all recently completed transdisciplinary doctorates in the field of sustainable futures and use this experience to highlight the challenges of crafting a convincing piece of research writing that also makes claims of transdisciplinarity (Palmer et al., 2018). We propose four strategies for working with data convincingly when undertaking transdisciplinary doctoral research.

1. Make the data visible and argue for the unique or special way in which the data will be used

Some of the comments received from our examiners reflected a sense of being provided with insufficient data, or that it was not convincing as data.

It is important that the nature of data for the purposes of the research is clearly defined, and presented in a way that demonstrates its value in the research process. Richer contextualization of the data can help to make clear its value. This can include drawing attention to the remoteness of the field location, the rare access gained to the participants, and/or the unusual or special qualities of the data that make an original contribution to knowledge.

In these and other cases, it may be important to explain how a particular kind of data can valuably inform an argument qualitatively without reference to minimum quantitative thresholds. This is particularly relevant where a transdisciplinary doctoral candidate is crossing between physical/natural science, humanities and social science disciplines.

2. Be creative and explore the possibilities enabled by a broad interpretation of ‘data’

The advantage conferred on the candidate in taking a transdisciplinary approach needs to be made evident to the examiners, especially where there may appear to have been an absorption of the ‘data’ in the wider synthesizing narratives that are typical of transdisciplinary writing.

Adopting more creative writing techniques may help the examiner both to see the data, and to see the research as valuable. Transdisciplinary doctoral candidates may, given the complex feat of communication this requires, find it useful to seek training in creative writing or science communication skills.

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Jane Palmer (biography)

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Dena Fam (biography)

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Tanzi Smith (biography)

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Jenny Kent (biography)

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Using the concept of risk for transdisciplinary assessment

By Greg Schreiner

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Greg Schreiner (biography)

Global development aspirations, such as those endorsed within the Sustainable Development Goals, are complex. Sometimes the science is contested, the values are divergent, and the solutions are unclear. How can researchers help stakeholders and policy-makers use credible knowledge for decision-making, which accounts for the full range of trade-off implications?

‘Assessments’ are now commonly used.

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The path perspective on modelling projects

By Tuomas J. Lahtinen, Joseph H. A. Guillaume, Raimo P. Hämäläinen

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Tuomas J. Lahtinen (biography)

How can we identify and evaluate decision forks in a modelling project; those points where a different decision might lead to a better model?

Although modellers often follow so called best practices, it is not uncommon that a project goes astray. Sometimes we become so embedded in the work that we do not take time to stop and think through options when decision points are reached.

Joseph H. A. Guillaume (biography)

One way of clarifying thinking about this phenomenon is to think of the path followed. The path is the sequence of steps actually taken in developing a model or in a problem solving case. A modelling process can typically be carried out in different ways, which generate different paths that can lead to different outcomes. That is, there can be path dependence in modelling.

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Raimo P. Hämäläinen (biography)

Recently, we have come to understand the importance of human behaviour in modelling and the fact that modellers are subject to biases. Behavioural phenomena naturally affect the problem solving path. For example, the problem solving team can become anchored to one approach and only look for refinements in the model that was initially chosen. Due to confirmation bias, modelers may selectively gather and use evidence in a way that supports their initial beliefs and assumptions. The availability heuristic is at play when modellers focus on phenomena that are easily imaginable or recalled. Moreover particularly in high interest cases strategic behaviour of the project team members can impact the path of the process.

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Pro-active learning to improve interdisciplinary processes

By Laura R. Meagher

Member of Board of Governors
Laura R. Meagher (biography)

I am a firm believer in looking at interdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge exchange – or impact generation – as processes. If you can see something as a process, you can learn about it. If you can learn about it, you can do it better!

I find that this approach helps people to feel enfranchised, to believe that it is possible for them to open up what might have seemed to be a static black box and achieve understanding of the dynamics of how nouns like ‘interdisciplinarity’ or ‘knowledge exchange’ or ‘research impact’ can actually come to be.

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The strength of failing (or how I learned to love ugly babies)

By Randall J. Hunt

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Randall J. Hunt (biography)

How to give others your hard-won insights so that their work can be more informed, efficient, and effective? As I’ve gotten older, it is something that I think about more.

It is widely recognized that the environment is an integrated but also “open” system. As a result, when working with issues relating to the environment we are faced with the unsatisfying fact that we won’t know “truth”. We develop an understanding that is consistent with what we currently know and what we consider state-of-the-practice methods. But, we can never be sure that more observations or different methods would not result in different insights.

Read moreThe strength of failing (or how I learned to love ugly babies)

Should I trust that model?

By Val Snow

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Val Snow (biography)

How do those building and using models decide whether a model should be trusted? While my thinking has evolved through modelling to predict the impacts of land use on losses of nutrients to the environment – such models are central to land use policy development – this under-discussed question applies to any model.

In principle, model development is a straightforward series of steps:

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