Hooray for social awkwardness
Happy new year! Today we have a guest post by Kate Sherren, a friend and colleague of mine from Dalhousie University, Canada. Together with Jan Hanspach, we just published a new paper on inter- and transdisciplinary research for sustainability — available from Basic and Applied Ecology or a pre-final version here. Our paper covers insights from our projects in Australia (which Kate discusses below), but also from Romania.
Joern Fischer and I met in a large, interdisciplinary environmental research school at the Australian National University. I was doing social science, and Joern, ecology. Even with an integrative institutional culture, the odds were not favourable that we would end up collaborating. My desk was awkwardly placed in relation to his, however, forcing first greetings, then pleasantries, and finally a discovery of common interests and complementary skills. He was already engaged in understanding how grazing practices affected tree regeneration in Southeastern Australia, where scattered tree cover was declining. He bemoaned the ‘shifting baselines’ phenomenon that meant the tree cover loss was not front-of-mind for the farmers or the public. I showed him ‘virtual reality’ animations of forestry scenarios from my time working in sustainable forestry research in Northern British Columbia, which we used for stakeholder and public engagement. In a matter of weeks, we wrote, along with Prof Stephen Dovers, a grant application to add social and economic elements – including landscape visualisations – to his ecological work, and were lucky to fall within the 3% of applications funded that year.
A pragmatic research design allowed us a healthy mix of disciplinary rigour, interdisciplinary synthesis, and transdisciplinary engagement. Each disciplinary sphere was autonomous, with minimal dependencies on others. It was implied that each of these needed the rigour appropriate to seek peer review in the appropriate disciplinary outlets. Meanwhile, we carefully identified areas of overlap for synergistic collaboration: visualising the impacts of various grazing practices on tree cover, as determined by the ecological research; determining farm-gate costs for the transition to preferred planting or grazing practices; and, understanding how farmers perceive all of the above. We used the same landscape (place), farmers/farms (cases) and processes (e.g. stakeholder workshops, survey instruments) as opportunities for efficiencies and building understanding across the spheres. The work had impact in policy, legislation, on farms, and in local schools. It turned out to be a solid model for applied interdisciplinary work in coupled social-ecological systems, as well as one lacking the career risks sometimes associated with interdisciplinary work.
A recent paper in Basic and Applied Ecology sets out the model for other ecologists who feel that insights into the socio-economic domain will give traction to scientifically derived ‘answers’ to conservation or sustainability problems. Joern used the model to structure his Sofia Kovalevskaya-funded project on post-EU agricultural transitions in Romania, where he works with Jan Hanspach, co-author on this paper and collaborator in Australia as well. I have similarly sought collaborations with ecologists here in Nova Scotia to examine wetland restoration on farms. There is plenty of literature that lays out more utopian forms of transdisciplinary knowledge building and exchange, but these can be difficult to tackle with short project horizons and pre-established deliverables, and may involve some individual risks for disciplinary status. Our approach to transdisciplinarity is pragmatic, but effective and broadly transferrable.