The Nexus Network workshop on ‘Transdisciplinary Methods for Developing Nexus Capabilities’, was held at the University of Sussex, UK on 29-30 June 2015. The workshop took a critical look the research challenge in addressing nexus issues and thinking was stimulated by the Discussion Paper which was made available before the meeting.
Here is a run-through of what was covered at the event:
James Wilsdon, Director of the Nexus Network opened the event and welcomed the participants.
Andy Stirling, Professor of Science & Technology Policy, University of Sussex to set out the main topic of the event: ‘Developing Nexus Capabilities: towards transdisciplinary methodologies’.
Andy outlined his catergorisation of methods from a review of over 100 different kinds of Nexus-related methods, including
- relations & practices: analytic / interactive
- epistemic cultures: quantitative / hybrid / qualitative
- styles of reasoning: deductive / inductive / abductive
- procedural functions: frameworks / techniques / tools.
Andy then talked about how presention of findings on a topic, in an attempt to give a clear message e.g. to policy makers, can conceal a breadth of views and findings. Andy discussed the spectrum of ‘closing-down’ to ‘opening-up’ methods that can be used to combine reflection and reflexivity in informing policy and politics. Andy cautioned that power tends to close down research and appraisal with a focus on methods such as cost-benefit analysis, due to pressure to command authority, foster trust, secure acceptance and manage blame. One of the challenges for research and appraisal is to actively balance bias in conventional appraisal, by including methods such as plural photovoice, participatory appraisal, system histories and intervention futures.
In the second part of the talk, Andy outlined thinking around mono, cross, trans and multi disciplinarity – this is best explained by looking at the diagrams in the slides (starts slide 23).
Finally Andy ended with 6 pointers towards Nexus-related capabilities to stimulate thoughts for the rest of the event:
- Diversity: just as no one ‘Nexus’, so for ‘Nexus Method’ or even Methodology.
- Reflexivity: about framing, & especially about how power imprints knowledge.
- Broaden Out inputs: issues, options, uncertainties, scenarios, perspectives.
- Open Up outputs: plural conditionality shows answers depend on questions.
- Transdisciplinarity: more equal relations between disciplines and beyond.
- Policy & Politics: not just usual ‘users’ but marginal, vulnerable & democracy.
Download Andy’s slides here (opens pdf) AndyStirling
Guy Poppy, Professor of Ecology at the University of Southampton and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Food Standards Agency, talked about the immense complexity of the global food system and how it connects with many other sectors and is influenced by multiple drivers. Guy also talked about the use of social media to track disease output and how to communicate issues of risk with policy makers. Download Guy’s slides here (opens pdf) GuyPoppy
The first panel quickfire saw 3 speakers giving very short overviews of their work and thoughts in relation to:
Transdisciplinarity. Frances Harris, Kingston University. Frances spoke on:
- Tensions in transdisciplinarity: Challenging diverse methods, values and cultures towards common goals and outcomes.
- Evaluating transdisciplinarity: Defining success from multiple perspectives.
- Challenges for transdisciplinary researchers: Training and career pathways for the transdiscplinarian.
Governance & Strategic Action. Christian Stein, Stockholm Environment Institute.
- Why we need to put people at the heart of the nexus.
- Why we should think about the nexus as a system of relations.
- Why we are turning in circles debating integration and what we can do about it.
Is this a new debate? Alice Bows-Larkin, Tyndall Centre Manchester.
- Scale, focus & transferability: new complexities posed by cross-scale/cross-sector approaches.
- A new potential platform for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research: overcoming academic barriers.
- Nexus challenges in a contemporary context: impact and urgency.
Scoping the Issues
The session also involved a panel quickfire covering major issues such as:
Diversity and Plurality. Henrietta Moore, Director of the Institute for Global Prosperity and Chair in Philosophy, Culture and Design at University College London asked ‘How do we know what will bring about transformative change?’. Something that stood out for me from Henrietta’s talk was an example she gave of a man with three wives: one main wife and two wives whose role was to collect water for the household. This example throws up so many issues and it was very thought provoking.
Credibility and Legitimacy. Gary Kass, Deputy Chief Scientist, Natural England. Gary spoke on:
- Academia, left to its devices, will not develop the skills necessary to work in the Nexus so we need active intervention.
- We must ensure that those working in the Nexus have skills that are relevant, credible and legitimate.
- This requires developing three types of skills: disciplinary, enabling and underpinning.
Power and Reflexivity. Andrea Cornwall, Professor of Anthropology and International Development, University of Sussex. Andrea spoke on the power of participatory methods, reflexivity and local knowledge. Andrea showed a picture of differences between maps sketched out in participatory processes with different stakeholders (men, women and children), in a development project, as a basis for illustrating a point about diversity of views and knowledge.
Andrea stressed the need for democratising research and priority setting; the value of participatory research in building bridge and the need for mutual respect and empathy in the process of co creating knowledge
Excellence and Engagement. John Gaventa, Institute of Development Studies. John spoke on:
- To address the critical, global challenges at the ‘Nexus’ we need approaches which go beyond ‘academic excellence’ to ‘engaged excellence’.
- This requires methods which integrate rigorous research, co-construction of research process, partnerships with others and impact – on policies, practices, discourses, evidence and ideas.
- Each of these can strengthen the other – the challenge is how to integrate them rather to separate them in our work.
Complexity and Uncertainty. Nigel Gilbert, University of Surrey. Nigel spoke on:
- Society is complex. That means that long-range planning is absurd.
- Society is reflexive. That means that meanings and narratives make a difference.
- Society is multi-scale. That means that action at one level has implications for other levels.
Plenary discussion: different views, tricky problems, what’s missing?
Group conversations on crucial questions for the next day and beyond.
We were extremely pleased to welcome Nathan Oxley, Impact, Communications and Engagement Officer, from the STEPS centre on day one of the event. Nathan provided a great amount of insight in highlighting the speakers’ main points to our online audience following the event on twitter using #transdisciplinarymethods. All the photos were taken by Nathan and used with much thanks.
Mixing Methods in Real Problem Contexts
Speakers on day 2 tried to bring the thinking from day 1 to real world issues such as:
Climate and Energy. Jim Watson, Research Director UK Energy Research Centre and Professor of Energy Policy, University of Sussex. Jim talked about:
- The potential of scenario methods to bring together diverse perspectives, bridge qualitative-quantitative divides and inform decision making
- Working across energy, environment, water and food: is the nexus a new challenge for scenario methods?
- Scenarios as a means to an end: the importance of relevance and timing in achieving impact
Environmental change. Sue Hartley, Director Environmental Sustainability Institute, University of York. Sue talked about:
- Overcoming practical barriers to interdisciplinarity – how can we best facilitate interactions between disciplines, departments and institutions?
- Adapting to the challenges of a changing environment – how can interdisciplinarity help us harness research innovations to make a difference?
- Interdisciplinarity and the future – how can we ensure the next generation of researchers are “nexus-enabled”?
Raw Material Conflicts. Raimund Bleischwitz, Sustainable Global Resources, University College London. Raimund talked about:
- Environmental and human security ‘on the ground’ and multi-scale Issues exacerbate raw material conflicts.
- On the verge of a new resource curse.
- Mixing quantitative and qualitative methods from a range of disciplines.
Food and Ecosystem Services. Tim Benton, Professor of Population Ecology, University of Leeds and UK Champion for Global Food Security. Tim talked on:
- Defining “sustainability in agriculture” and why it’s an issue.
- The problems of scale and context-dependency.
- The local in the global: trade matters.
Implications in Practice
Supporting researchers. Rose Cairns, coordinator of the Nexus Network and Research Fellow at the Science and Technology Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex. Rose spoke on the idea of ‘doing interdisciplinarity’ as potentially risky to the individuals who try to do it (e.g. finding jobs, progressing in careers etc), and supporting interdisciplinarity can be tricky, depending on where one sees the locus of knowledgde production occuring, whether at the level of teams or individuals. Maybe some forms of discomfort are simply characteristic of the process of encountering difference, which is inherently part of the interdisciplinary endeavour. In conclusion, Rose said:
- Discomfort may be inevitable and helpful element of ‘doing interdisciplinarity’ and encountering difference
- Support for researchers should be about nurturing not controlling/steering – the creation of spaces, including the space to fail
- Support also needs to be about challenging the structures and incentives which perpetuate the problems.
Mixing methods. Rosalind Edwards, Professor of Sociology, University of Southampton. Ros talked on:
- Why? Using mixed methods allows you to combine breadth with depth, extensive with intensive knowledge.
- When? Mixing methods is structured around: importance, order and stage in the research process.
- What? Epistemologically, mixing methods can be complementary or integrative. Only complementarity allows for productive conflict.
A Perspective on Business. Ken Caplan, Director of Partnerships in Practice. Ken talked about:
- More businesses see the need to work beyond the fenceline to ensure access to resources.
- Paying for delivery of joint solutions may lead to complications and conflicts of interest.
- The circular economy is starting to show some promise.
A Civil Society View. Janet Cotter, Greenpeace. Janet talked about:
- Nexi arise through a realisation that we live on a finite planet.
- In many cases, the root cause of nexi is consumption,
- e.g. over consumption of energy causes land-use issues via bioenergy.
Andy Stirling led the final discussion on
- Pitfalls, Principles and Rules of Thumb – in addressing: “What kinds of social and research capabilities and capacities are most needed – and in what kinds of mix?”
- Research Needs, Enabling Action and What do we mean by Success? – in addressing:“What kinds of method may best help inform, strengthen and catalyse the necessary transformative action?”
The meeting ended with lunch and continued discussions on the many topics and issues raised throughout the two days. A report will be available from the workshop soon.
You can see the online discussion that the event generated on twitter #transdisciplinarymethods with the Methods Storify.