Next to all Arctic researchers these days are confronted with the notion that multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary research approaches are inevitable for the future progress of Arctic research. At the latest when working on funding applications, hardly any of us can avoid addressing these approaches in order to secure funding for Arctic projects. More and more funding agencies put these approaches down as necessary requirements for the Arctic research they want to fund. As one example, the recent Belmont Call for Proposals on Arctic Observing and Research for Sustainability explicitly stated in its call that “all proposals must integrate across the natural sciences and social sciences and should include an interdisciplinary, multinational approach, demonstrate strong relevance for user needs, and examine a variety of coupled interactions and feedbacks among relevant systems.”
So there was a clear “must” for inter- and transdisciplinary research in this call, and this is just one out of many examples. However, it seems that often these approaches remain as mere buzzwords or “tags” for projects, although no one disputes the usefulness of inter- and transdisciplinary work. One reason for this is the lacking debate about the exact meaning of these terms, their virtues but also vices for the progress of research generally and for the Arctic specifically.
Let’s start with the terms and their meanings. This article does not claim to give objective definitions of these terms but rather gives one possible understanding and ways of working with them. The classical variant is of course disciplinary research, where separate disciplines work in separate departments and have research projects on their own, producing cutting each research work in their respective field. Usually, inter- and multidisciplinary are used interchangeable although one could argue that interdisciplinarity goes a step further in also implying that disciplines need to truly integrate their research work and outcomes. In contrast, multidisciplinarity could mean that different disciplines are represented in a common project or department but they work relatively independently from one another and not a lot of integration and actual exchange and cooperation between the disciplines takes place. Often, inter- and multidisciplinarity are understood as being part of transdisciplinarity, which goes even beyond the research realm to include societal and other stakeholders in the research work (Figure 1).
In more detail, disciplinary research is research within academia involving one discipline. Inter- or multidisciplinary research is also research within academia but involving more than one discipline, either in a rather weak fashion where the disciplines are organised more in silos or separate working groups in a common project or in a more integrated way. Transdisciplinary research goes beyond academia and involves stakeholders from policy, civil society and other non-academic groups (Figure 2). Since this process usually also involves more than one discipline, interdisciplinarity is often assumed as part of transdisciplinarity.
But why and when doing transdisciplinary research? In brief, transdisciplinary research is appropriate when your research is not or not only about science delivering solutions mono-directionally (i.e. only for scientific purposes), but when it is (also) about co-development where science is only one piece of the puzzle, and where the aim is to co-develop a range of options that support societal transformation pathways. These latter options are usually intended in sustainability research and thus transdisciplinarity is a useful approach here.
And how can transdisciplinary research work? There are surely many ways to operationalize transdisciplinary research. As one example, the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) puts at the core of its transdisciplinary approach the engagement of societal stakeholders in all phases of the research process, where it appears sensible and possible to do so. These phases range from topic identification and process design to generation of solution-oriented knowledge to discussion with societal stakeholders. Especially this last step is intended to provide the crucial link between research work and a transformative effect on society and also to new impulses for research.
But let’s get back to interdisciplinarity. I have come to think of interdisciplinary work not only in its differentiation to multidisciplinary work, but also in a “weak” and a “strong” version. For example, the time at my graduate school – which was of course branded as being “interdisciplinary” – was an experience of rather weak interdisciplinarity. While the students and academic personnel of the graduate school were from various disciplines including political science, sociology, communication studies and the school was generally open to students also from backgrounds in law, economics and history, we all stayed more or less comfortably within the borders of social science. This interdisciplinary work within social (or for that matter natural science) borders, I would call weak interdisciplinarity. In contrast, an institute like the IASS designs projects including political scientists, human geographers, lawyers, meteorologists, atmospheric scientists and chemists (like the SMART project). This is what I would call strong interdisciplinarity, i.e. joint research across natural and social science disciplines, or humanities, engineering etc., wherever one prefers to draw the line between the disciplines.
The terms “weak” and “strong” are by no means intended to imply that the latter is better than the former. Communication and collaboration within the social and within natural sciences is also hard work and not easy since every discipline has its own language, underlying assumptions, concepts, traditions etc. Both approaches can make sense (or no sense) depending on the specific research and questions addressed.
This brings us to the necessity to discuss some problems, open questions and lessons learned from using inter- and transdisciplinary approaches in our research work. A general big issue about inter- and transdisciplinarity is that everyone agrees it is necessary to do, adopt and implement but little more information, debate, discussion, ideas, examples of how to actually do it is provided. We are therefore in dire need of more examples of inter- and transdisciplinary work, outlining the successful and the less successful or even failed attempts of such research approaches to be able to learn from them. We need to ask and answer:
- For which questions is inter- and transdisciplinary work sensible, relevant and possible?
- For which are such approaches not recommended?
- How to share the burden between disciplines in such approaches?
- How to avoid silo knowledge or how to achieve true integration of different disciplines and with societal knowledge and concerns?
- How to inform each other about assumptions, ideas, models, approaches, concepts etc.? How to convey the general thinking behind one’s work, the “101” of each subject or how it generally works?
- What is the context-dependent “right” relationship between disciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work?
Against this background, the following provides some lessons learned from my personal experience in working in an inter- and transdisciplinary research environment. First of all, interdisciplinary research cannot and should not replace good disciplinary work. In some research projects, and also there often only in parts, inter- and transdisciplinary work is warranted, sensible, necessary and feasible. But where it is not conducive to the intended research outcome and/or where it is just not feasible, it will not help to force inter- and transdisciplinary work into the project.
Second, it is hard and a lot of work to interact with researchers from other disciplines and to engage non-academics truly and thoroughly in a research project. Since many funding organisations nowadays ask for inter- and transdisciplinary work – and rightly so since many research areas demand such approaches to make steps forward – also the research environment and structures researchers work in have to adapt accordingly, ranging from human to time to financial resources. This might also require a bit of a change in focus of many research calls, away from the necessity to always provide new data, to providing resources also for working with existing data but applying it with the help of new approaches.
Third, although many of us would say “sure, we need interdisciplinary research”, my sense is that pre-existing images of “the other science” (in the sense of natural vs. social science) are still very strong, on all sides. Since most of us were trained in disciplinary subjects, it might be hard to understand the differences between, for example, social sciences and humanities, the relationship and difference between social science and politics, the basics of natural science methods such as modelling, the uncertainties and limitations of models etc.
After all these words of warning and perils, this article should nevertheless finish on a positive note. Inter- and transdisciplinary work is such a great opportunity for us as researchers to broaden our horizon and to tackle research questions, challenges and problems that we possibly would not have even thought about within our own disciplinary boundaries. It is not only hard work as outlined, it is also fun and fulfilment for us as researchers. And not least, it is also our responsibility as credible researchers to go down that path.
Given the manifold developments at play in the changing Arctic region, we also need manifold disciplines to tackle the challenges on the way towards sustainable Arctic futures. For example, natural sciences observe and model the changing nature of the Arctic sea ice, environment and atmosphere. Social sciences like law, economics and political science can draw on this knowledge to provide input as to the likely development of, for example, the pace and extent of Arctic resource exploration and exploitation. This data can inform natural science models as to the expected amount of pollutants and black carbon from Arctic sources and thus how we can expect Arctic air pollution to develop, the role of black carbon for the future development of Arctic sea ice, and the possibility of long-range transport of pollutants between Arctic and non-Arctic regions. It further provides data as to the possible and likely effects on Arctic societies and cultures.
Multidisciplinary research work is also indispensable to disclose the ever-tightening connections between Arctic and non-Arctic actors, processes, systems and stake- and rights-holders. The involvement of more and more non-Arctic actors in Arctic governance on the one hand provides insights in the possible investments and social development of the region. On the other hand, it discloses the delicate relationship between opportunities and responsibilities that non-Arctic actors have in relation to Arctic changes.
But as said, while multidisciplinary research is indeed indispensable to achieve advances in Arctic research, this should not be understood as replacing disciplinary research. State-of-the-art research from all disciplines is of course still invaluable and very often forms the very basis for fruitful multidisciplinary research or synergies between separate disciplines.
This article is based on a presentation the author gave at the 2nd Arctic in Rapid Transition (ART) Science Workshop, “Integrating spatial and temporal scales in the changing Arctic System: towards future research priorities” (ISTAS), 21-24 October 2014 at the European Institute for Marine Studies (IUEM) Plouzané, France. Dr. Kathrin Keil is also a Project Scientist at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam, Germany.