Recognising interdisciplinary expertise

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Gabriele Bammer (biography)

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.

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Sharing mental models is critical for interdisciplinary collaboration

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?

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Toolkits for transdisciplinary research

By Gabriele Bammer

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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.

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

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.

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

Advocate or Honest Broker?

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?

Read moreAdvocate or Honest Broker?

Collaboration, difference and busyness

By Gabriele Bammer

gabriele-bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What are the ingredients of successful research collaboration? How can we make collaboration work when we are all getting busier?

One of the best guides to success in collaborative team work was produced by Michelle Bennett, Howard Gadlin and Samantha Levine-Findlay in 2010. Built on the experience of researchers at the US National Institutes of Health, they explored: preparing for collaboration, selecting team members, fostering trust, sharing credit, handling conflict and more.

An additional way of thinking about collaboration that I have found useful (Bammer 2008) is to consider it as a process of harnessing and managing differences.

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Six lessons about change that affect research impact

By Gabriele Bammer

gabriele-bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What do researchers need to know about change to help our research have greater impact? What kind of impact is it realistic to expect? Will understanding change improve the ways we assess research impact?

The six lessons described here illustrate some of the complexities inherent in understanding and trying to influence change.

#1. Research findings enter a dynamic environment, where everything is changing all the time

As researchers we often operate as if the world is static, just waiting for our findings in order to decide where to head next. Instead, for research to have impact, researchers must negotiate a constantly changing environment.

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The ‘methods section’ in research publications on complex problems – Purpose

By Gabriele Bammer

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Gabriele Bammer (biography)

Do we need a protocol for documenting how research tackling complex social and environmental problems was undertaken?

Usually when I read descriptions of research addressing a problem such as poverty reduction or obesity prevention or mitigation of the environmental impact of a particular development, I find myself frustrated by the lack of information about what was actually done. Some processes may be dealt with in detail, but others are glossed over or ignored completely.

For example, often such research brings together insights from a range of disciplines, but details may be scant on why and how those disciplines were selected, whether and how they interacted and how their contributions to understanding the problem were combined. I am often left wondering about whose job it was to do the synthesis and how they did it: did they use specific methods and were these up to the task? And I am curious about how the researchers assessed their efforts at the end of the project: did they miss a key discipline? would a different perspective from one of the disciplines included have been more useful? did they know what to do with all the information generated?

Read moreThe ‘methods section’ in research publications on complex problems – Purpose

Why are interdisciplinary research proposals less likely to be funded? (Reblog)

By Gabriele Bammer

gabriele-bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

The first empirical support for a long-standing complaint by interdisciplinary researchers was recently published in the leading journal Nature. The Australian National University’s Lindell Bromham, Russell Dinnage and Xia Hua showed that interdisciplinary research is less likely to be funded than discipline-based research proposals (Nature, 534, 684–687 (30 June), DOI: 10.1038/nature18315).

They cleverly applied a technique from evolutionary biology that examines relatedness between biological lineages, using a hierarchical classification of research fields rather than an evolutionary tree. The relative representation of different field of research codes and their degree of difference were used as a proxy measure for interdisciplinarity.

The results, based on 5 years of data from the Australian Research Council’s Discovery program, are robust and are unaffected when number of collaborators, primary research field and type of institution are taken into account.

What does it mean?

Read moreWhy are interdisciplinary research proposals less likely to be funded? (Reblog)

Two frameworks for scoping

By Gabriele Bammer

gabriele-bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

How can all the possibilities for understanding and acting on a complex social or environmental problem be elucidated? How can a fuller appreciation of both the problem and the options for tackling it be developed, so that the best approach to dealing with it can be identified? In other words, how can a problem be scoped?

The point of scoping is to illuminate a range of options. It moves those dealing with the complex problem beyond their assumptions and existing knowledge to considering the problem and the possibilities for action more broadly.

Practicalities, however, dictate that everything cannot be included, so that scoping is inevitably followed by boundary setting.

Read moreTwo frameworks for scoping

In praise of multidisciplinarity

By Gabriele Bammer

gabriele-bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What characterizes multidisciplinary research? When is it most appropriate? What does it take to do it well? Multidisciplinarity often gets a bad rap, being seen as less sophisticated than interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity. But does it have its own important role in dealing with complex social and environmental problems?

Multidisciplinary research has two primary characteristics:

  1. different disciplines independently shine their light on a particular problem, and
  2. synthesis happens at the end and can be undertaken by anyone.

Unlike interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, there is no attempt to agree upfront on either a problem definition or on how the different perspectives will be brought together.

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Six types of unknowns in interdisciplinary research

By Gabriele Bammer

gabriele-bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What types of unknowns are tackled in interdisciplinary research?  I draw on my experience directing a program of research on the feasibility of prescribing pharmaceutical heroin as a treatment for heroin dependence. Analysis of this case revealed six different types of unknowns:

  1. Disciplinary unknowns
  2. Unknowns of concern to stakeholders
  3. Unknowns marginalised by power imbalances
  4. Unknowns in the overlap between disciplines
  5. New problem-based unknowns
  6. Intractable unknowns.

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