The report from the ‘Transdisciplinary Methods for Developing Nexus Capabilities’ workshop, held at the University of Sussex on 29 and 30 June 2015, is now available.
Download the report as a pdf Transdisciplinary Nexus Methods Workshop final Report 2015
In light of growing challenges in the just, equitable and sustainable global provision of water, food and energy and the complexity of the interactions between these vital systems (the challenges of ‘the Nexus’), participants in the workshop considered the following key questions:
- What different kinds and interconnections of method in contrasting contexts, form the most practical basis for enabling transformative action to address Nexus challenges?
- How can such encompassing Nexus methodologies best enable academic, government, business and civil society actors to develop appropriate skills, training and research capabilities?
These questions are also addressed in a discussion paper prepared in advance of the workshop by Professor Andy Stirling.
The report elaborates on the ideas and discussions around key themes of the meeting, drawing on input from the speakers and participants. On the first day, participants looked at ‘nexus’ methods, with the concepts outlined in detail by Andy Stirling in his talk. People also focussed on the challenges of working together. Many of the concerns highlighted are not limited to the nexus but could be applicable to any research which crosses subjects and involves participation from different groups.
Despite the concerns highlighted, it was viewed that the challenges of the nexus ‘present an opportunity to develop transdisciplinarity beyond its present limits’.
concerns around transdisciplinary research
The report highlights that ‘transdisciplinary research is complex and time-consuming, especially when it is done in a way which incorporates non-academics’ and that ‘the transdisciplinary approach can also create findings that are complex and hard to apply.’
Communication is key. Even between the researchers this can be a problem; ‘while natural and social scientists have worked together for decades, they often still fail to communicate with each other effectively.’ For example, ‘risk and uncertainty, as understood by natural scientists, can arise from the limits of the scientific method; however social scientists may see them in terms of the complexity of human society’.
Engagement with non-academics: some felt that ‘Nexus research should be participatory throughout’, however this also takes time and money. ‘Nexus-focused research is likely to produce ambiguous answers to important questions. How can we persuade audiences to accept provisional findings that require judgement and interpretation?’ However, it is also important to note that the extent to which researchers in the Nexus community should work with, or act to counter, existing power structures’ was a matter of great contention.
approaches to encourage transdisciplinary research
Some of the suggested approaches from the workshop include
- Reducing misunderstandings between natural and social scientists, ‘for example, by methods such as decision analysis and by insights from psychology and anthropology’ is needed.
- Taking the time to understand the priorities of non-academics such as government, business, NGOs and others was felt to be important, yet ‘time-consuimg and difficult’. Suggestions to address this included more placements to exchange people between the sectors.
- More recognition is needed for the importance of teams in nexus research, and better support for teams in terms of formation and functioning. Suggestions for the use of ‘agile’ research, more common in engineering, where people come in and out of the project depending on the skills needed.
- The ability to communicate findings, including issues of uncertainty and risk, to a range of people, from the individual householder or farmer to the mutlinational business is important.
- It was noted that the Nexus Network is mainly a UK activity, despite the global nature of the challenges it seeks to address’, and ‘ways of working appropriate to the global South need to be developed’.
Specifically for researchers, the report notes that
- ‘More capacity needs to be built for transdisciplinary research’ by ‘broadening undergraduate education and the PhD experience’ and by mentoring.
- Transdisciplinary research can be ‘uncomfortable for researchers who have come through a single-discipline background’. Support for individuals could be improved by funding systems and better career pathways.
- Hopes were expressed that the next academic Research Excellence Framework assessment will ‘value transdisciplinary impact more highly’ and also that academic ‘quality’ should include a measure of ‘relevance’ to urgent topics, such as food, energy and water, which need to be addressed.
What kinds of methods are needed?
Professor Andy Stirling outlined over 100 examples of Nexus-related approaches to a range of problems and projects in his workshop talk. The report notes that ‘choosing an appropriate methodology or methodologies from the plethora of possibilities is itself a challenge, especially given the broad range of data, disciplines and interests that a typical Nexus project must address. No individual researcher is likely to be familiar with all the options. These methodological choices might seem to be a point of detail, but they often reflect the preferences of existing powerful groups. This leads on to a specific concern with mixed methods, expressed by several workshop participants.’
‘Mixed method approaches ought in principle to be flexible and scalable, and therefore ideally suited to research into transdisciplinary/ Nexus-type issues. In practice, research funding panels can be monodisciplinary and unsupportive of mixed approaches.
‘Participants asked what the choice of a method does to the researcher herself and whether methods can be devised that engage people’s emotions and their desire to act, as well as yielding new and systematic knowledge.’
The report concludes that ‘a wide range of methods may be applied to the problems which Nexus seeks to address. They are both qualitative and quantitative, and are drawn from the full range of academic disciplines. Researchers will need training in choosing the right method as well as in using it. Mixed methods are likely to be appropriate for many Nexus-related problems.’
About the report
The report was compiled by the independent science writer Martin Ince, as a record of the concerns and issues discussed at the workshop, and to highlight some approaches that might be of value to participants in the network and with related interests. This report is not the ‘minutes of the meeting’, but is intended to capture the diversity of discussions that took place at the workshop. Although the workshop was not designed to produce a specific set of recommendations, the report does draw out concerns and priorities which emerged as possible topics for future discussion. The report does not necessarily reflect the views of the Nexus Network or of individual workshop participants.
Download the full report
To read more about the workshop discussions, download the full report as a pdf Transdisciplinary Nexus Methods Workshop final Report 2015
Image credit. With thanks to Christian Meyer (Street Photography) on flickr.