Social science identities in interdisciplinary research and education

By Eric Toman

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Eric Toman (biography)

What does it mean to include ‘a social scientist’ in a team tackling complex problems? Here I focus on complex environmental problems and how biophysical and social scientists work together. I’m curious if social scientists face the same issues in other problem areas, such as health.

Things have improved since my early academic career, when I was often asked to justify why a social scientist deserved a seat at the table when discussing environmental questions. It seemed that even supportive natural scientists were motivated to engage their social science colleagues only to ‘fix’ some type of problem caused by people (e.g., politicians, decision-makers, managers, the “general public”).

While it’s now normal for social scientists to be included, they tend to be lumped together, unlike the biophysical scientists who are differentiated into a range of disciplines with relevant specialization areas.

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Eight institutional practices to support interdisciplinary research

By Margaret Palmer, Jonathan Kramer, James Boyd, and David Hawthorne

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Margaret Palmer (biography)

How can institutions help enhance interdisciplinary team success? We share eight practices we have developed at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) which was launched in 2011 with funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

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Jonathan Kramer (biography)

The center supports newly formed research teams from anywhere in the world to work collaboratively at its facility. The teams synthesize existing theories and data to advance understanding of socio-environmental systems and the ability to solve environmental problems.

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Do we need to discipline interdisciplinarity?

By Gabriele Bammer

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Gabriele Bammer (biography)

Imagine a team of researchers tackling global health inequalities, with a focus on sanitation. The team comprises epidemiologists and biostatisticians interested both in measuring the extent of the problem and designing intervention trials, engineers investigating a range of sanitation options, anthropologists examining the cultural aspects of sanitation, economists and political scientists documenting the economic benefits and looking for policy levers to assist in making change happen.
 
The team is working at national policy levels and with a range of target communities seeking to engender small business interest in promoting new sanitation options, as well as individual and community behaviour change. There is collaboration with major international donors and non-government organisations. The team has a talented and charismatic leader.

What the team does not have is access to the full array of theory and methods for synthesising the input of the different disciplines, along with all the relevant stakeholder knowledge. Nor does it have the ability to bring to bear all the different ways of teasing out and taking into account the knowledge gaps – the unknowns. Finally the team cannot tap into the wealth of information about how to provide effective integrated research support for policy and practice change.

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Fire together, wire together: The role of funding bodies in supporting interdisciplinary research

By Mohammad Momenian

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Mohammad Momenian (biography)

Our brain is comprised of neural networks. The repeated occurrence of an action or experience creates established networks in the brain. Some synapses in these networks are connected to each other more strongly than others. In other words, the more neurons fire together, the stronger they wire together. This neuroscience principle can be used as a metaphor to call attention to the role of funding bodies in supporting new interdisciplinary research.

At the turn of the last century, we witnessed the emergence of new interdisciplinary fields

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Where to publish? Journals for research integration and implementation concepts, methods and processes

By Gabriele Bammer

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Gabriele Bammer (biography)

If you have developed a new dialogue method for bringing together insights from different disciplinary experts and stakeholders, or a refined modelling technique for taking uncertainty into account, or an innovative process for knowledge co-creation with government policy makers, where can you publish these to get maximum exposure and uptake?

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Reinventing science? From open source to open science

By Alexey Voinov

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Alexey Voinov (biography)

Science is getting increasingly bureaucratized, more and more driven by metrics and indices, which have very little to do with the actual scientific content and recognition among peers. This is actively supported by the still dominant for-profit publication mechanism, which harvests products of scientific research for free, processes, reviews and edits them using voluntary work of scientists themselves and then sells the resulting papers back to the scientific community at obscene costs. The original ideals of scientific pursuit of truth for the sake of the betterment of humanity are diluted and forfeited in the exhausting race for grants, tenure, patents, citations and nominations. Something has to change, especially in the era of post-normal science when so much is at stake, and so little is actually done to address the mounting problems of the environment and society.

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Distinguishing between multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinarity – ‘theological’ hair-splitting or essential categorisation?

By Gabriele Bammer

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Gabriele Bammer (biography)

In a recent special issue of the journal Nature on interdisciplinarity (17 September 2015, p313-315), Rick Rylance criticised “arcane debates about whether research is inter-, multi-, trans-, cross- or post-discipli­nary”, opining “I find this faintly theological hair-splitting unhelpful.” Does he have a point?

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Why set up a blog site before you want to use it? First we need to find each other…

By Gabriele Bammer

gabriele-bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

The aim of this site is to host a global conversation about… well one of the challenges is that we don’t yet have an agreed name for our topic.

This is a conversation for you if your research does some of the following:

  • Gets people from different disciplines working together
  • Builds models of complex social and environmental problems
  • Helps policy makers use research evidence
  • Figures out ways to manage value conflicts
  • Finds ways to identify unknown unknowns
  • Maps interconnections between problem elements
  • Works with business to build better products
  • Involves community groups in defining the problem
  • Worries about adverse unintended consequences
  • Realises that context matters.

I think about these practices as integration and implementation sciences. You might call them systems thinking, action research, interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity, implementation science, post-normal science, mode 2 research, project management, complex systems science or a host of other terms.

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