Ten lessons from a transdisciplinary PhD program in sustainable development

Community member post by Marianne Penker

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Marianne Penker (biography)

Should a doctoral student specialise in transdisciplinary sustainable development research? What are the opportunities and challenges associated with undertaking a program that requires research integration and implementation?

At the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna in Austria, teams of PhD-students and academic supervisors collaborated with representatives from regions, cities, public authorities, businesses or civil society to solve pressing and often wicked sustainability problems. We learnt the following ten lessons. 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

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

Community member post 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? Continue reading

Integration – Part 2: The “how”

Community member post by Julie Thompson Klein

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Julie Thompson Klein’s biography

The “how” of integration focuses on pragmatics of process, with emphasis on methods. Toward that end, following the part 1 blog post on the “what” of integration, this blog post presents insights from major resources, with emphasis on collaborative research by teams.

Some widely used methods are well-known theories, for example general systems. Others are practiced in particular domains, such as integrated environmental assessment. Some utilize technologies, for example computer synthesis of data. And others, such as dialogue methods, target communication processes. Continue reading

The knowledge practice paradox

Community member post by Robert Duiveman

Robert Duiveman (biography)

Both researchers and politicians frequently claim that the interactions between science and public policy need reform and improvement: an agenda actualized by people all over the world by engaging in new collaborative knowledge practices. But a closer relationship doesn’t necessarily equal a better one; it depends on the design of the collaboration as well as the choices made along the way.

Given the societal and scientific importance attached to new knowledge practices, there is a striking lack of insight into what is actually done within them. There seems to be what I label a knowledge practice paradox. Continue reading

Do we need to discipline interdisciplinarity?

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

gabriele-bammer
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.
Continue reading