In this post, Ola Michalec and Cian O’Donovan reflect on the final stage of the Nexus Network project – mapping capabilities and capacities for transdisciplinary research.
Between 2014 and 2018, the Nexus Network funded multiple initiatives exploring the intersections between the food, water, energy and environmental domains of the sustainability challenges. Starting with funded think-pieces and workshops that critically explored the concepts of the nexus and transdisciplinarity, the Nexus Network moved on to supporting individuals and teams in the creation of their own projects. In particular, it awarded year-long Partnership Grants intended to create a space for transdisciplinary collaborations across the water nexus.
As we’re approaching the end of this ESRC network initiative, we have begun looking back on the research activities and exploring how the projects funded by the Nexus Network advanced the field of transdisciplinarity. Did they have the skills and relationships required for a successful collaboration? Or, to turn the question around, are the universities and funding bodies adequately supporting researchers to develop appropriate capabilities for transdisciplinary work?
Over the summer we are interviewing the active members of the Nexus Network: Partnership Grant P.I.s, Research Assistants, Overseas and Policy Partners. What are their stories of collaboration, how do they negotiate and cross the disciplinary and sectoral boundaries? What have they learnt as a result? We will be complementing individual narratives with survey data at the team level and finally- bibliometric data on project members’ co-authorship and their respective disciplinary “homes”.
tensions between theory and practice
In order to learn more about the recent developments of the transdisciplinarity agenda, we attended the European Association of Science and Technology Studies (EASST) conference in July 2018 (EASST2018), which was hosted by Lancaster University. Among the wide-ranging and diverse research areas covered by Science and Technology Studies (STS), from the ethics of AI through to “the making of” the Paris Agreement, is the topic of researching researchers. Therefore, it was not surprising to see many quality presentations at EAST2018 that explored inter- and transdisciplinary research, the notional identities associated with such work and varied understandings of the collaborations involved.
For example, Anna-Lena Berscheid (University of Paderborn) looked at frictions arising during interdisciplinary meetings. Her findings show that the Graduate School and individual researchers have very different views on what constitutes interdisciplinarity: there are tensions between the idealistic and pragmatic visions of it. Anna argues that STS researchers have an invaluable role in interdisciplinary projects, as they have an in-depth understanding of such tensions and the tools to diffuse conflicts.
Ashley Lewis (School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Nottingham) conducted ethnographic research of urban sustainability researchers (who often call her a “spy”, which is quite telling!). Ashley’s participants would admit that they often perceive interdisciplinarity as an “achievement”, yet many of them struggle to imagine what a “true” crossing of the disciplines would look like. Therefore, she argues that we should consider interdisciplinarity a process rather than an end-goal. Could this framing change the expectations set by the funders?
The divergence between ideas of transdisciplinarity and its practice in sustainability research is shown in a study by Mirko Suhari (Zeppelin University), which sought to show how transdisciplinary energy academics negotiated and formed their identities. While delivering a paper based on the findings of this study, Mirko explained that the actual identities of his participants differed quite significantly from the roles assumed by the sustainability literature; for example, those of “transition manager” or “change agent”. In fact, Mirko revealed that they would often admit to feeling distant from these idealised roles. In reality, these particular energy academics felt their identities to be fragmented, dynamic and in constant tension with various other actors in energy, state and civic society sectors.
There is a burgeoning body of research and associated discourse on inter- and transdisciplinarity identities and collaborations. How will this impact the way such research is supported and practised? The next step is to make sure the results from this turn in “meta-research” inform the related policy documents, funders’ strategies and team practises. We’re hoping that the Nexus Network will become this much-needed link between the researchers’ experiences and future funding recommendations.
Ola is a PhD researcher at UWE Bristol and research assistant for the Nexus Network. Her background is in action research and critical approaches to the water-energy-food (WEF) Nexus. Follow Ola @Ola_Michalec.
Cian is Research Coordinator for the Nexus Network. He has co-authored publications based on the findings of the Nexus Network, including the report Sustainability in turbulent times. Read the report here.
Photo: The IPORE project received a Partnership Grant to capture how farm households’ decisions on the use of organic resources impact long-term soil fertility and resilience to drought. (credit: Professor Paul Hallett, University of Aberdeen)