Three lessons from statistics for interdisciplinarians and fellow travellers

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

gabriele-bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

In last week’s blog post on recognising interdisciplinary expertise I argued that forming a new i2S discipline could help embed interdisciplinarity and related approaches (transdisciplinarity, systems thinking, action research, T-shaped research and others) in the academic mainstream. But how would such a discipline work? What are the challenges to establishing an i2S discipline and how could they be overcome?

The discipline of statistics provides three productive analogies. Key to success in both statistics and i2S are: collaboration, dedicated journals to publish advances in concepts and methods, and lobbying for effective application of the discipline.

1. Collaboration

For both statistics and i2S to be effective, collaboration is essential. Both enhance research across a wide range of problem areas—health, the environment, education and more. Statisticians contribute to teams that require expertise in quantitative reasoning. They assist teams in designing studies and in interpreting the outcomes.

Integration and implementation scientists contribute to teams requiring expertise in exploring a complex problem more comprehensively. They assist teams in figuring out how best to approach the problem and its interconnections, which disciplines and stakeholders need to be involved, how to bring together the various disciplinary and stakeholder perspectives, how to take into account what’s not known about the problem, how to support those charged with acting on the problem, and other related issues.

2. Dedicated journals to publish advances in concepts and methods

If a statistician’s work in a project team leads to advances in the statistical concepts or methods they brought to the table, the innovation is reported in the statistics disciplinary literature, not in the literature about the problem they were working on. The advance then becomes available to all other statisticians to apply, as appropriate, in the full range of problem areas, be they in education, environment, security, health or elsewhere.

i2S needs similar journals to share relevant concepts and methods among researchers undertaking interdisciplinary explorations of various complex problems. If an integration and implementation scientist in a team working on illicit drug use developed an innovative scoping technique to identify all the relevant disciplines and stakeholders, for instance, there is currently no journal through which this advance could be made available to others tackling, for example, biodiversity loss, obesity, or poverty reduction.

Instead, relevant tools tend to be published in the literature about the societal or environmental problem, in the grey literature, or not published at all. As well as making concepts and methods hard to find, this means that any research team’s knowledge about the tools that are already available is poor. In turn, that leads to a lot of reinventing of concepts and methods for, for instance, engaging stakeholders and translating evidence for practitioners. It also means that existing concepts and methods tend to stagnate rather than being continuously improved.

Laying the foundations for a future journal of i2S concepts and methods is one of the purposes of this Integration and Implementation Insights blog.

3. Lobbying for effective application of the discipline

The importance of collaboration means that it is not enough for statistics and i2S to simply exist; each needs to be effectively brought into the relevant partnerships. In recent years, statisticians have banded together to ensure that statistical understanding and tools are appropriately deployed. For example, because analysis cannot fix poor design, they have effectively lobbied and educated for inclusion of statisticians at project start-up, rather than the previous practice of just bringing them in at the later analysis stage. As a result, the statistical approaches in grant applications and papers now come under close scrutiny, with funders and journal editors often requesting specific reviews by expert statisticians.

Similarly, it will not be enough for i2S just to be established; action will also be required to ensure that its members have influence in research on complex societal and environmental problems. The role of i2S is to raise the bar in teams tackling these issues. An immediate task is to move teams away from reinventing concepts and methods to employing and building on those that already exist.

A major hurdle to promoting such adoption of i2S is again fragmentation—this time the lack of a unified academic community to drive uptake of i2S, which was described in more detail in my blog post last week.

What would success look like?

Imagine multiple research teams tackling complex societal or environmental problems—such as a team project on fisheries depletion in Sweden, a government research team investigating firearms control in Brazil, a graduate student program tackling obesity in the USA, and multiple research groups in a public-private partnership addressing poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

At least one member of each team is an integration and implementation scientist, and belongs to a vibrant international academic community striving for continuous improvement in ways to tackle complex societal and environmental problems. Their work has a strong basis in relevant concepts and methods.

Through text books, journals, and an open-access online knowledge bank, they have access to, and help upgrade, a repository of concepts and methods for dealing more comprehensively with complex problems. They provide their teams with practical assistance in choosing and applying the best concepts and methods for their investigations, and use that experience to evaluate and improve those tools.

Their performance for tenure and promotion is assessed in an analogous way to that of statisticians: including by the concepts and methods they have developed and improved and by their ability to contribute to the team in progressing understanding and action on complex societal and environmental problems; all evidenced through publications and grants. Critically, the assessment is conducted by peers from the i2S discipline.

Do you think that establishing an i2S discipline could provide a break-through in the way interdisciplinary and related researchers are embedded in the academic mainstream? Are there other ways to recognise the specialist skills required to 1) weave disciplinary and other insights into a more comprehensive understanding of the problem as a whole, and 2) provide effective options for action? What would it take for you to identify as an integration and implementation scientist? Are there other lessons or analogies that building an i2S discipline could draw on?

To find out more:
Bammer, G. (2017). Should we discipline interdisicplinarity? Palgrave Communications, 3 (article 30). Online (DOI): 10.1057/s41599-017-0039-7

Biography: Gabriele Bammer is a professor at The Australian National University in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) 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. She leads the theme “Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science” at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

Recognising interdisciplinary expertise

gabriele-bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

Could we overcome the challenges of embedding interdisciplinarity in the academic mainstream if relevant expertise were defined and recognized as a new discipline? What is this relevant expertise?

Here I consider team-based interdisciplinarity addressing complex societal and environmental problems and argue that it needs specific expertise over and above that contributed by disciplines. This set of knowledge and skills is currently poorly defined and recognized.

If contributing such know-how was an established role, it could provide a way of more adequately integrating interdisciplinary researchers into academic institutions. Furthermore, the time is ripe to codify that expertise by pulling together lessons from decades of experience.

To illustrate what is needed, let us look more closely at research on illicit drug use as an example of a complex problem. Each relevant discipline brings an important, but only partial, understanding to bear. For example, pharmacologists contribute knowledge about the effects of these drugs, epidemiologists about estimated levels of use in the population, criminologists about impacts on property theft and other crime, legal experts about regulations and laws, historians about how those laws came into being, and so on.

But it is no existing discipline’s business to combine these disciplinary perspectives to allow illicit drug use to be viewed more comprehensively. To do this effectively requires a solid base of concepts and methods over and above those contributed by the existing disciplines.

What if we established a new discipline to underpin team-based interdisciplinary research on complex societal and environmental problems? A discipline that sets out an organized approach to dealing more comprehensively with such problems?

As well as combining disciplinary perspectives, such a discipline could also encompass other aspects of researching complex social and environmental problems that are not covered by existing disciplines, particularly figuring out:

  • which disciplines have useful knowledge to contribute
  • which stakeholder perspectives would be valuable, such as from police and drug users in the case of illicit drug use
  • whether and how different elements of the problem are interconnected, such as examining all the impacts of criminalizing drug use (including on deterrence, punishment, willingness to seek help, and reintegration into paid employment)
  • the likely consequences of critical unknowns for understanding illicit drug use (such as rates and causes of cessation) or for changing illicit drug policy (such as the potential impact of a yet-to-be developed synthetic drug or an unforeseen change in popular culture which alters perceptions about illicit drug use)
  • how research can best support evidence-based change.

Particularly significant is that the relevant concepts and methods can be used for a wide range of problems, not just illicit drug use.

One aspect of such a discipline would be to provide a repository for the concepts and methods required to undertake the tasks described above that are currently no other discipline’s business. These new disciplinary experts would then join teams tackling complex problems to—among other things—make them aware of, and help them apply, the best available concepts and methods.

These currently unrecognised concepts and methods can be categorised into two broad groups:

  • concepts and methods for integration, ie., synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge and understanding and managing critical unknowns
  • concepts and methods for implementation, ie., providing integrated research support (bringing together both what is known and an approach to critical unknowns) for policy and practice change.

I have therefore proposed that a new discipline could be called integration and implementation sciences (i2S).

A discipline is, of course, more than a repository of concepts and methods. Nevertheless, the relevant concepts and methods are currently highly fragmented by being scattered throughout the published and grey research literatures, so the task of developing a repository would be a good starting point for building the new discipline.

In addition, the process of identifying relevant integration and implementation concepts and methods could help build an i2S discipline identity. It could help interdisciplinarians tackling complex real world problems recognise commonalities with other groups, including transdisciplinarians, systems thinkers, action researchers, community operational researchers, sustainability scientists and so on. The aim of an i2S discipline identity is not to replace or subsume these other identities but to provide a conduit connecting them.

An i2S discipline could also provide an identity for so-called “T-shaped researchers,” who often do not identify with any of the above groups, although they share many of the same skills. Their name recognises not only their skills in a traditional discipline (the vertical bar), but also their ability to collaborate across disciplines (the horizontal bar). There is currently no unified community of T-shaped researchers sharing and promoting these “horizontal bar” skills.

The aim of i2S is to provide a unifying focus and rationale for banding together.

As Rick Szostak also points out in his blog post on why we need to listen to interdisciplinarity’s critics, the lack of cohesion among like-minded individuals and groups means that none has the critical mass to speak with authority about interdisciplinarity in policy discussions about funding, research or education.

I continue this argument next week by exploring what a new i2S discipline could learn from the discipline of statistics.

What do you think? Does the interdisciplinary skill set described here resonate with you? How do you describe yourself – as an interdisciplinary researcher? T-shaped researcher? Systems thinker? Or something else? What do you think about also describing yourself as an integration and implementation scientist?

To find out more:

Bammer, G. (2017). Should we discipline interdisicplinarity? Palgrave Communications, 3 (article 30). Online (DOI): 10.1057/s41599-017-0039-7

Biography: Gabriele Bammer is a professor at The Australian National University in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) 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. She leads the theme “Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science” at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

Sharing mental models is critical for interdisciplinary collaboration

Community member post by Jen Badham and Gabriele Bammer

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Jen Badham (biography)

What is a mental model? How do mental models influence interdisciplinary collaboration? What processes can help tease out differences in mental models?

Mental models

Let’s start with mental models. What does the word ‘chair’ mean to you? Do you have an image of a chair, perhaps a wooden chair with four legs and a back, an office chair with wheels, or possibly a comfortable lounge chair from which you watch television? Continue reading

Toolkits for transdisciplinary research

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

gabriele-bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

If you want to undertake transdisciplinary research, where can you find relevant concepts and methods? Are there compilations or toolkits that are helpful?

I’ve identified eight relevant toolkits, which are described briefly below and in more detail in the journal GAIA’s Toolkits for Transdisciplinarity series.

One toolkit provides concepts and methods relevant to the full range of transdisciplinary research, while the others cover four key aspects: (i) collaboration, (ii) synthesis of knowledge from relevant disciplines and stakeholders, (iii) thinking systemically, and (iv) making change happen. Continue reading

Complexity, diversity, modelling, power, trust, unknowns… Who is this blog for?

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

This is the first annual “state of the blog” review.

This is a blog for researchers who:

  • want better concepts and methods for understanding and acting on complex real-world problems – problems like refugee crises, global climate change, and inequality.
  • are intrigued by the messiness of how components of a problem interact, how context can be all-important and how power can stymie or facilitate action.
  • understand that complex problems do not have perfect solutions; instead that “best possible” or “least worst” solutions are more realistic aims.
  • enjoy wrangling with unknowns to better manage, or even head-off, unintended adverse consequences and unpleasant surprises.
  • are keen to look across the boundaries of their own expertise to see what concepts and methods are on offer from those with different academic backgrounds grappling with other kinds of problems.
  • want to join forces to build a community which freely shares concepts and methods for dealing with complex problems, so that these become a stronger part of the mainstream of academic research and education.

November saw this blog’s first anniversary and this 100th blog post reviews what we are aiming for and how we are tracking. Continue reading

Advocate or Honest Broker?

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

To mark the first anniversary of the Integration and Implementation Insights blog, we launch an occasional series of “synthesis blog posts” drawing insights across blog posts on related topics.

What is our social obligation as researchers to see our findings implemented? And how should we do it? When is it appropriate to advocate loudly to drive change? When should we focus on informing decision makers, stepping back ourselves from direct action? How can we know that our research is ‘good enough’ to act on and not compromised by our own values, interests, cognitive biases and blind spots? Continue reading