Recognising interdisciplinary expertise

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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).

One university’s response to addressing complex real-world problems / Respuesta de una universidad para afrontar problemas complejos del mundo real

Community member post by Carlos Mataix, Javier Carrasco, Sara Romero and Marcel Bursztyn

A Spanish version of this post is available

How can universities more effectively address complex real-world problems, especially in sustainable development? What’s needed is not only disciplinary expertise, but also an ability to deal with systems problems involving wicked dynamic interrelations and a diversity of stakeholders, with varying levels of power to design and implement solutions. Researchers need to interact with a diversity of actors, inside and outside the academic community and to take into account diverse mental frameworks, languages, cultures and interests.

The Innovation and Technology for Development Centre at the Technical University of Madrid (itdUPM)

A growing number of faculty members at the Technical University of Madrid have sought to address this challenge, leading to the creation in March 2012 of the Innovation and Technology for Development Centre (itdUPM).

The Centre’s main characteristics are:

  • Its aim of contributing to the solution of sustainability problems through both collaborative research and postgraduate problem-oriented education, involving students from diverse disciplines
  • Voluntary affiliation of university faculty members and researchers to itdUPM, with more than 200 currently holding joint appointments or multiple affiliations between departments or research groups and itdUPM. A faculty member will undertake teaching duties for their department, disciplinary research within their research group, and action-focused research on sustainable development problems with members of the itdUPM network
  • Affiliates also include non-academic professionals and experts with a record of collaboration with itdUPM and its working groups
  • The Centre is organized as a network
  • Teams are not permanent and they are established as task forces of varying durations.

The Centre’s organization is represented in the figure below. The circles represent the network’s nodes:

  • Management Committee (19 lecturers and coordinators of Research Groups and PhD holders)
  • Standing Committees (working under the Management Committee to speed up processes and programmes)
  • Communities of Knowledge and Practices (communities focus on different disciplines)
  • Technical Team (fulfills the enabler node function composed by a group of individuals dedicated exclusively to itdUPM).
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Carlos Mataix (biography)

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Javier Carrasco (biography)

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Sara Romero (biography)

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Marcel Bursztyn (biography)

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Synthesis centers as critical research infrastructure

Community member post by Andrew Campbell

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Andrew Campbell (biography)

When we think of research infrastructure, it is easy to associate astronomers with telescopes, oceanographers with research vessels and physicists with particle accelerators.

But what sort of research infrastructure (if any) do we need in order to do more effective multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research on big, complex, ‘wicked’ challenges like climate change or food security?

Some eminent colleagues and I argue in a new paper (Baron et al., 2017) that the answers include: Continue reading

Managing deep uncertainty: Exploratory modeling, adaptive plans and joint sense making

Community member post by Jan Kwakkel

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Jan Kwakkel (biography)

How can decision making on complex systems come to grips with irreducible, or deep, uncertainty? Such uncertainty has three sources:

  1. Intrinsic limits to predictability in complex systems.
  2. A variety of stakeholders with different perspectives on what the system is and what problem needs to be solved.
  3. Complex systems are generally subject to dynamic change, and can never be completely understood.

Deep uncertainty means that the various parties to a decision do not know or cannot agree on how the system works, how likely various possible future states of the world are, and how important the various outcomes of interest are. Continue reading

Going beyond ‘context matters’: A lens to bridge knowledge and policy

Community member post by Leandro Echt and Vanesa Weyrauch

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Leandro Echt (biography)

The role and importance of context in the interaction between research and policy is widely recognized. It features in general literature on the subject, in case studies on how research has successfully influenced policy (or not), and in practitioners´ reflections on the results of their work. But how does context specifically matter? Can we move beyond generic statements?

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Vanesa Weyrauch (biography)

To find some answers to these complex questions, Politics & Ideas and the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) embarked on a joint knowledge systematization effort, combining a literature review with in-depth interviews with 48 experts and policymakers, mostly in developing countries.

What do we mean by context?

Our first challenge was to define what we concretely mean by context. Continue reading

Learning to tackle wicked problems through games / Aprendiendo a hacer frente a problemas perversos a través de los juegos/ Apprendre à affronter les problèmes sournois à travers les jeux

Community member post by Claude Garcia, Anne Dray and Patrick Waeber

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Claude Garcia (biography)

A Spanish version and a French version of this post are available

Can we help the next generation of policy makers, business leaders and citizens to become creative, critical and independent thinkers? Can we make them aware of the nature of the problems they will be confronted with? Can we strengthen their capacity to foster and lead stakeholder processes to address these problems?

Yes. Continue reading