Interview & Opinion

Tackling real-world problems

Gabriele Bammer is working towards seeing transdisciplinary research embedded more firmly in the academic and funding system. Source: Our Land and Water/Screenshot

FWF: You have been active in transdisciplinary research for a long time now. What sets this approach apart from traditional academic research is that it involves players outside the academic system, seeking to benefit from their skills and knowledge. Where does this development stand today?

Gabriele Bammer: There’s a growing appreciation that tackling together both the scientific and the societal aspects of a problem allows it to be understood more comprehensively and opens new possibilities for effective action. There’s ever-expanding recognition of this kind of research world-wide. One indicator is continuing growth in publications about transdisciplinary projects, methods, processes and so on. Another is the increasing number of attendees at transdisciplinary conferences.

FWF: What is at the core of transdisciplinary research?

Bammer: The core of transdisciplinary research is both an orientation and a set of methods. There are some key aspects and approaches: First of all, it is important to understand that problems are systems and therefore inter-relationships as well as more straightforward causes should be examined. Next, relevant stakeholders have to be brought into the research – both those who are affected by the problem and those who are in a position to do something about the problem. Ideally what you are aiming for is co-production, where the stakeholders are involved as partners in designing the research and implementing the findings and, sometimes even undertaking the research.

Transdisciplinary research benefits from diversity across a whole range of dimensions.

Gabriele Bammer

Transdisciplinary research benefits from diversity across a whole range of dimensions, including knowledge, epistemologies, interests, personalities, cultures, and life experiences. Integrating across this diversity, for example through dialogue or modelling, is key. Further, such projects are action-oriented, so that it’s not just about understanding the problem better, but also supporting improvement. Against this background it is critical to be aware of the context of the problem, for example an environmental or health problem in one region can play out quite differently from the same problem in another region. And finally a broader appreciation of what we don’t know and an ability to accept some unknowns rather than ignoring them helps.

FWF: How are transdisciplinary projects ideally carried out, and in which time frame?

Bammer: It’s not possible to predict how any research that is addressing a worthwhile problem will proceed or how long it will take – and that includes transdisciplinary research. It’s also difficult to shoe-horn transdisciplinary research into a conventional funding system. The characteristics of transdisciplinary research I described earlier explain this. For example, developing close, active engagement with a range of stakeholders to establish trust is time-consuming and requires support, both in the initial stages and to maintain over the long-term. Another example is that transdisciplinary research does not finish with the publication of papers in peer-reviewed journals; instead researchers have a role in supporting action for improvement and in evaluating it, which also require on-going funding.

FWF: What motivates researchers to engage in transdisciplinary work?

Bammer: There’s an interesting paper that was published recently that explored this question with Swiss researchers. Essentially it’s recognising the value added to the research that including stakeholders brings. Interestingly people want to do transdisciplinary research even though they recognise that it may slow down or harm their career progression. That doesn’t mean they are happy about those disadvantages and they would certainly like to see them disappear.

Negotiation skills and holistic thinking are essential.

Gabriele Bammer

FWF: Involving more stakeholders means that more interests come to bear on a project. Are transdisciplinary projects at greater risk of failure than others?

Bammer: This is both an attraction and a challenge of transdisciplinary research. Being fascinated by differences in perspectives, values, interests and all other aspects of diversity is one of the drivers that brings researchers to transdisciplinarity. Key skills that transdisciplinarians require include ways to integrate different perspectives, manage different interests and accommodate different values so that complex societal and environmental problems can be more comprehensively understood and more adequately dealt with. Transdisicplinary researchers also need skills to stop differences from derailing projects, such as principled negotiation for dealing with different interests. Two key factors that lead to „failure“ are lack of such skills and deliberate sabotage, often by powerful actors, who resist new approaches that will undermine their interests.

FWF: The funding programme #ConnectingMinds is the FWF’s first programme that focusses specifically on transdisciplinary research. How would you describe the salient points of the new programme?

Bammer: The most important thing is having a significant government funder – the FWF – take transdisciplinary research seriously. There is growing interest among funders in how to support this kind of research, but the FWF is one of the few who have explicitly grappled with how to match the funding programme with the requirements of transdisciplinary research. The FWF is already a role model for other funders as they move forward in this area. For example, in recognition of the programme that was (then) under development, FWF was invited to contribute to the third symposium of the Science Europe Scientific Advisory Committee.

Gabriele Bammer is an internationally renowned expert on transdisciplinary research at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University (ANU). She has established the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems. Bammer is a member of the international steering committee and jury for the newly launched FWF funding programme #ConnectingMinds.

Further reading

Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S)

News: #ConnectingMinds: Searching for Responsible Answers

Funding Programme #ConnectingMinds

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