Funding transformative research: 10 key stages

Community member post by Flurina Schneider

Flurina Schneider (biography)

How can funding programmes maximize the potential of transformative research that seeks to make a real difference? How can funders support a more hands-on approach to societal challenges such as ecological crises? A group of Swiss transdisciplinary researchers and funding-agency staff identified 10 overlapping stages and their key ingredients. The stages are also described in the figure below.

  1. Preparation of the funding programme. From the start, funding programme leaders should seek dialogue with all those concerned with the societal challenge, including decision-makers and affected communities. Only then should they create a formal programme description and announce a call for project proposals—while still leaving room for grantees (those who receive grants) to adapt the framing of problems and goals.
  2. Project proposal elaboration. Transformative research requires teams including academics and societal collaborators from diverse backgrounds. These teams need time to form, build trust, and identify knowledge gaps and priorities for change. Ideally, teams will include senior scientists versed in collaborating beyond academia, but such people remain rare.
  3. Funder interactions with applicants. The competitive nature of research funding often leads funding programme staff to keep applicants at arm’s length. But nurturing a young field like transformative science often requires a more hands-on approach. This might include organizing training in transdisciplinary research, and giving pre-proposal advice to applicants about how to strengthen their methods or teams.
  4. Project selection. This crucial stage determines the parts – projects, subtopics, approaches, and budgetary framework – that will build the greater sum of the research programme. Therefore, emphasis must be placed on evaluation criteria and procedures that do justice to the transdisciplinary character of research proposals. The projects selected should contribute to both scientific and societal aims. A mix of projects is crucial, with those taking a narrower disciplinary approach complemented by others involving an exchange with society.
  5. Research activities. Once the projects begin and research gets underway, project leaders may need to adapt their studies in response to local people’s concerns or the realities of day-to-day work with collaborators from diverse disciplines and social and cultural backgrounds. Funding programme staff can aid this process and ensure wider programme coherence in several ways (see 6, 7, and 8 below).
  6. Joint agenda setting. Ideally, programme leaders will hold workshops early on that enable approved projects to jointly fine-tune targeted problems and goals with a view to synthesizing their eventual findings or impacts. Researchers can be encouraged to maximize synergies, for example by addressing different parts of the same global value chain. As the goals of the selected projects might not fully fit the predefined programme goals, the latter can also be adapted accordingly.
Conceptual model of a transdisciplinary research funding programme involving 10 key stages (Schneider et al., 2019)
  1. Networking and synthesis. As research progresses, it is helpful for funding programme heads to periodically convene researchers from all the projects to ensure continuing exchange and relationship building. Special ‘synthesis projects’ can be launched to ensure that transformation-oriented activities occur at the programme level, such as public information campaigns or the creation of widely accessible tools for disseminating results and visualizing data.
  2. Funder interactions with projects. Funding programme leaders have several ways to enhance projects as the research progresses. One example is using annual reports to foster self-reflection among the project teams on their progress towards scientific and societal goals, necessary changes required in the project, adaptation to real-world contexts, and lessons from transdisciplinary collaborations. Another example is that targeted training can be offered to foster skills in areas that science curricula often overlook, such as communication and public engagement. Finally, project visits by programme staff can help clarify remaining concerns.
  3. External communication. Transdisciplinary research is ideally suited to accessible knowledge products, including decision-support tools (eg., scenarios for climate change and adaptation), policy briefs, apps, and videos. Products should respond to societal collaborators’ needs and desires. Funding programme leaders should also strive to create spaces for mutual learning by all those concerned with the societal challenge. These might include discussions bringing together scientists, policymakers and the public. Funders should also develop ‘successor structures’ to carry on the programme’s work.
  4. Programme conclusion and impact evaluation. Societal transformations take time. As well as mandating final project reports, funding programme leaders should fund longer-term programme-level evaluations. These follow-ups can provide valuable information about what works or doesn’t work to effect transformation.

Transformative science requires transformative science policy. We highlight how the architecture of funding programmes could be enhanced to support research that prioritizes societal impacts. What do you think? Do you have experience with funding practices like those outlined above? If so, how effective are they? Do you have other suggestions for how funding programmes could better support transformative change?

To find out more:
Schneider, F., Buser, T., Keller, R., Tribaldos, T. and Rist, S. (2019). Research funding programmes aiming for societal transformations: Ten key stages. Science and Public Policy, scy074: 1-16. (Online – open access) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1093/scipol/scy074.

Biography: Flurina Schneider PhD is an integrative geographer and head of the Land Resources Cluster at the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern, Switzerland. Her research focuses on sustainability, justice, and human well-being in relation to land and water resources. She is particularly interested in how science, knowledge co-production and participation can contribute to sustainability transformations..

Achieving transformational change

Community member post by Steve Waddell

Steve Waddell (biography)

Realizing the Sustainable Development Goals presents probably the most audacious human organizing challenge ever. Their number, global scale, range of issues, timeline, and number of actors involved is surely unparalleled. They require transformational change. But what is transformational change? How does it differ from other forms of change? What’s required to achieve it?

Colleagues and I have created the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Transformations Forum to address these questions. In this blog post I first explore three types of change: incremental, reform and transformation, summarized in the figure below. I then briefly explore how they interact and their roles in realizing the Sustainable Development Goals. To tip the balance towards transformational change, I introduce the idea of social-ecological transformations systems and seven emerging guidelines for designing them. Continue reading

Building a global community to improve how complex real-world problems are tackled

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

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

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

As the blog moves into its 4th year, how well is it achieving its goals? Is it succeeding in sharing concepts and methods across the multiple groups addressing complex real-world problems – groups including inter- and trans- disciplinarians, systems thinkers, action researchers and implementation scientists, as well as the myriad researchers working on complex environmental, health and other societal problems, who do not necessarily identify with these networks? Is it providing a forum to connect these disparate groups and individuals? Is it helping to build an international research community to improve how complex real-world problems are tackled? Continue reading

Transforming transdisciplinarity: Interweaving the philosophical with the pragmatic to move beyond either/or thinking

Community member post by Katie Ross and Cynthia Mitchell

Katie Ross (biography)

Can a dive into the philosophical depths of transdisciplinarity provide an orientation to the fundamental purpose and need for transdisciplinarity?

The earlier philosophers of transdisciplinarity – such as Erich Jantsch (1980), Basarab Nicolescu (2002), and Edgar Morin (2008) – all aim to stretch or transcend the dominant Western paradigm, which arises in part from Aristotle’s rules of good thought. Aristotle’s rules of good thought, or his epistemology, state essentially that to make meaning in the world, we must see in terms of difference; we must make sense in terms of black and white, or dualistic and reductive thinking. Continue reading

Skilful conversations for integration

Community member post by Rebecca Freeth and Liz Clarke

Rebecca Freeth (biography)

Interdisciplinary collaboration to tackle complex problems is challenging! In particular, interdisciplinary communication can be very difficult – how do we bridge the gulf of mutual incomprehension when we are working with people who think and talk so very differently from us? What skills are required when mutual incomprehension escalates into conflict, or thwarts decision making on important issues?

It is often at this point that collaborations lose momentum. In the absence of constructive or productive exchange, working relationships stagnate and people retreat to the places where they feel safest: Continue reading

Structure matters: Real-world laboratories as a new type of large-scale research infrastructure

Community member post by Franziska Stelzer, Uwe Schneidewind, Karoline Augenstein and Matthias Wanner

What are real-world laboratories? How can we best grasp their transformative potential and their relationship to transdisciplinary projects and processes? Real-world laboratories are about more than knowledge integration and temporary interventions. They establish spaces for transformation and reflexive learning and are therefore best thought of as large-scale research infrastructure. How can we best get a handle on the structural dimensions of real-word laboratories?

What are real-world laboratories?

Real-world laboratories are a targeted set-up of a research “infrastructure“ or a “space“ in which scientific actors and actors from civil society cooperate in the joint production of knowledge in order to support a more sustainable development of society.

Although such a laboratory establishes a structure, most discussions about real-world laboratories focus on processes of co-design, co-production and co-evaluation of knowledge, as shown in the figure below. Surprisingly, the structural dimension has received little attention in the growing field of literature.

Overcoming structure as the blind spot

We want to raise awareness of the importance of the structural dimension of real-world laboratories, including physical infrastructure as well as interpretative schemes or social norms, as also shown in the figure below. A real-world laboratory can be understood as a structure for nurturing niche development, or a space for experimentation that interacts (and aims at changing) structural conditions at the regime level.

Apart from this theoretical perspective, we want to add a concrete “infrastructural” perspective, as well as a reflexive note on the role of science and researchers. Giddens’ use of the term ‘structure’ helps to emphasize that scientific activity is always based on rules (eg., rules of proper research and use of methods in different disciplines) and resources (eg., funding, laboratories, libraries).

The two key challenges of real-world laboratories are that:

  1. both scientists and civil society actors are involved in the process of knowledge production; and,
  2. knowledge production takes place in real-world environments instead of scientific laboratories.
Franziska Stelzer (biography)

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Uwe Schneidewind (biography)

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Karoline Augenstein (biography)

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Matthias Wanner (biography)

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Continue reading