By Kirsti Ashworth
Last week, I introduced the process of transdisciplinary research: an iterative, co-operative approach that brings communities and researchers together to collaborate at all stages of the research process. But given the difficulties of finding funding for traditional scientific research, can this kind of research become a reality? There are plenty of examples out there that suggest it can.
There are already signs of change: many scientists are starting to consider the practical implications and applications of their research, looking beyond the narrow confines of their discipline, and engaging with local stakeholders. International institutes, science co-ordinators, and funding agencies are actively promoting inter- and transdisciplinary research. The field of sustainability is a prime example.
In 2015 the International Council for Science introduced a new ten-year initiative, “Future Earth”, charged with shaping the future of sustainability science. Future Earth’s strategy document, “2025 Vision”, reads as a primer of transdisciplinary research, taking the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and re-framing them into 8 key societal challenges, such as “safeguard[ing] terrestrial, freshwater and marine natural assets underpinning human well-being”, with the over-arching goal of “pioneer[ing] approaches to co-design and co-produce solutions-oriented science, knowledge and innovation for global sustainable development”.
In December 2015, Future Earth hosted a workshop at Stanford University, bringing together around 20 of the most promising Early Career Scientists currently engaged in the Future Earth themes from across the globe. The workshop introduced these sustainability champions of the future to the co-design process culminating in visionary approaches to four of Future Earth’s challenges. In each case, the transdisciplinary approach took centre-stage, with many innovative ideas of how to increase stakeholder involvement. One group proposed to hold a competition for middle-schoolers in Beijing, to be judged by government officials in the Ministries of Public Health, Transport, and Industry, to invent a way to improve air quality in the city. Thus initiating dialogue with policy-makers. One member of this group remarked that the workshop had re-ignited his passion for his research, and said that he would be returning to China knowing that his science could contribute to the realisation of his group’s vision – a Beijing in which World Health Organisation air quality thresholds are never exceeded. He was excited at the prospect of actively pursuing that goal, a goal that he had never previously imagined.
So how do we, as research scientists, find out what issues are of most concern to the community? American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange is an initiative that facilitates transdisciplinary research. Like the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Community Connections scheme, it acts as a dating agency bringing together scientists and local groups to seek solutions to challenges facing a community. Scientists can search TEX’s on-line database to find a community-led project, from sea level rise in Florida to wild fires in California, in which to participate. Much of the funding for such projects is currently provided by the communities involved, by NGOs and charitable foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or by individual UN organisations and international funding partnerships such as the Belmont Forum.
University of Michigan
Closer to home, many universities are finally beginning to recognise the importance of inter- and transdisciplinary research. While this is primarily motivated by the realisation that the taxpayer is no longer willing to support academics pursuing knowledge for its own sake from their ivory towers, it is leading to a gradual shift from the emphasis on depth (i.e. in a single topic area) to breadth (including the applications and impacts) of knowledge. Universities across the U.S. and around the world are now establishing and promoting interdisciplinary research centres and initiatives to bring together academics from a range of backgrounds and disciplines to investigate wider questions.
Here at University of Michigan, the Graham Sustainability Institute is a shining example of such a centre, bringing together interdisciplinary teams of researchers to address issues of local concern in a transdisciplinary framework, e.g. monitoring and controlling invasive species in the Great Lakes. And the 2015-2016 academic year saw the opening of the Munger Residences, living spaces designed to foster communities of multi-disciplinary graduate researchers, leading to strong networks for future collaborative research. This year also marked the second phase of the MCubed incubator project, through which U of M provides seed funding for collaborative projects led by researchers from three different schools or departments (e.g. investigating how global trade affects public health, and how mobile technology can be used to manage bipolar disorder). Such funding allows researchers the time to develop innovative approaches and demonstrate proof of concept to enable successful follow-up applications to external funding agencies. One group was awarded a prestigious NIH grant to develop micro-chip immune sensors to reduce hospital infection rates as a result.
With such initiatives and opportunities, the potential to work at the cutting-edge of science and technology, while addressing the most pressing challenges facing society today, has never been greater. As research scientists we are limited only by our own imaginations and our fear of the unknown. To work co-operatively is to relinquish control of the research agenda and adopting a co-xxx approach is a long process. It will take time, patience, persistence and continual practice to foster the mutual respect and changes in attitude that are needed on both sides of the partnership, as well as to encourage changes within academia to ensure such work is valued.
Auspiciously though, 2016 is also the Year of the Red Fire Monkey: a dynamic intelligent creature who thrives on challenge; a creative thinker who is able to draw people to him; one whose mischievousness may cause difficulties at times but whose intentions are always good. Above all, though, the Red Fire Monkey is bold and fearless, taking action where others fear to tread. Let us harness these traits, embrace transdisciplinarity and rise to the challenges ahead.
About the author
Kirsti is a postdoctoral research fellow in Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering at the University of Michigan. She successfully defended her PhD in Atmospheric Sciences at Lancaster University, UK in 2012. Her research involves developing and applying computer models to investigate how reactive gases from forests affect the atmosphere, and the implications this has for regional air quality. Outside of the lab you are likely to find her running, caving, skiing or simply relaxing with a nice cup of tea. Follow Kirsti on Twitter @KirstiAshworth and keep up to date with her academic achievements on LinkedIn.
Read all posts by Kristi here.