The idea of a “research journey” (sensu McGowan et al. 2014)

By Joern Fischer

In a recent paper in Ecology & Society, McGowan et al. introduce the idea of a “research journey”. An academic’s research journey takes place along two axes: from expert knowledge to knowledge that is co-produced with stakeholders; and from unpacking details to getting the “big picture”. The following figures stylises this:

McGowan's idea of a "research journey"

McGowan’s idea of a “research journey” (click to enlarge)

I wondered what my own research journey looked like, and so I tried to analyse it. I started with birds and paddock trees — a pretty specific issue, solely relying on expert knowledge (number 1 below). I then moved to reptiles in farming and forestry landscapes — still, largely drawing on expert knowledge, but trying to come up with general patterns about what drives biodiversity in human-dominated landscapes (2). From there, I moved to paddock trees in a broader sense; in a transdisciplinary project that involved stakeholders, social scientists and ecologists. The scope of this was much broader, ranging from specific to general, and the type of knowledge generation was much more diverse (3). From there, I went to a project on sustainable development in Transylvania, which went both very deep and very broad, and involved locals (but to a lesser extent than my previous work in Australia on paddock trees; 4). Finally, I’m now starting to work on the intersection of food security and biodiversity. The goal here is extremely general, and it is largely based on scientific knowledge. But still, I’m hoping we can also involve stakeholders in our case study in Ethiopia, and be of some local use (5).

Three patterns are apparent for my own journey: a trend from specific to general; a trend from expert-driven to stakeholders, but slightly back to expert-driven; and (most strikingly) an increasingly comprehensive scope (i.e. a bigger bubble, see below). I found this an interesting exercise! What does your research journey look like?

Joern's research journey

Joern’s research journey (click to enlarge)

4 thoughts on “The idea of a “research journey” (sensu McGowan et al. 2014)

  1. Thanks for sharing these reflections Joern. As result of our “Undisciplinarity” session at Resilience 2014, we have drafted a paper which presents a 2×2 axis of a ‘young interdisciplinarian’s journey’ with axes of methodological groundedness and epistemological awareness. We find that many of our cohort starting a Sustainability Science PhD, already have inter or even transdisciplinary backgrounds to begin with (upper right quadrant), bringing in new opportunities and challenges to achieve robust interdisciplinary science. Increasingly also, it seems that while we have new opportunities to publish in interdisciplinary journals as graduate students, the pressure for producing science uncovering general trends is present from the beginning. Important for PhD students, and programmes we believe, is to think carefully about how to balance this breadth with depth (to avoid pitfalls like ‘conceptual la-la land!). It would be interesting to see how different generations of scholars map their research journey on McGowan’s 2×2.

    • Thanks Jamila, for the comment! I guess some of my thoughts on this are actually those I just wrote in my response to Jahi … key is to balance the “safe” with the “ambitious” and the “useful”!

  2. A further interesting question–and of course, a very freighted one–might be comparing the social value of these different endeavors. In light of some of your previous posts, I’m wondering if the lower quadrant might not be where we ought to be going — specific phenomena with coproduction, such that (more, of course, not all) science is working on place-based answers that, being co-produced, are also therefore more likely to be acted upon in the locality.

    To this (slightly tangential) point, I add this useful observation:
    “I heard a talk from a chemist at Harvard named George Whitesides last year about this topic. The take-home point for me was made in a single 2×2 table he drew: one axis was importance of the research, and the other was the likelihood of success of the research (“success” in this context simply referred to the production of a result that would lead to a publication, which of course is the currency for all academics.)

    He said that a graduate student/professor/researcher always has an incentive to gravitate towards work in the top right quadrant of the chart (unimportant work that will probably lead to a result and therefore a publication) rather than the bottom left of the chart (work that is very important, but has a low probability of producing publishable results anytime soon).”

    • Thanks Jahi. Interestingly, the ERC (who funds my new research on food/biodiversity) specifically wants both high feasibility and high risk/high gain. While this is slightly contradictory, I set up my project in a way that would ensure there are some safe components, and some highly ambitious ones. In that sense, I think it’s possible to straddle this gradient, somehow. The “bread and butter” type work — safe work — is appropriate especially for PhD students, I’d say, and aiming for the “blue sky” is in fact not very justifiable in that context.

      Regarding transdisciplinary versus fundamental research … I guess here, too, I see the value of both. As long as the fundamental research is still on a topic worth knowing about! I think the value of fundamental sustainability research is that it shifts the frame of reference — or the dominant paradigm, if you like — and this is important. Big, fundamental, theoretical insights are therefore important to shift the entire debate; while specific transdisciplinary projects are important to make things happen on the ground.

      That’s my two bob anyway! Thanks for the discussion!

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