Place yourselves in uncomfortable situations. Such was the advice of Debra Roberts, one of the keynote speakers at the recent PECS conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Although I was inspired by her ideas, the conference also provided comfort, and I really appreciated the safe spaces where “young” scholars openly discussed how we do interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research.
How can young researchers do novel sustainability science that bridges different disciplines and engages societal actors in a meaningful way? How can we do this while still operating within conventional institutions and time constraints?
All of these questions were raised by early career scholars at the first conference organized by the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS), which took place between the 3rd and 5th of November. It gathered about 250 participants interested in the social-ecological dynamics of the Anthropocene and transitions towards sustainable stewardship. Instead of just presenting our research results, we could share the challenges we face and the strategies we have developed to deal with them.
At a SAPECS (the South African branch of PECS) learning event before the conference, Christo Fabricius facilitated a discussion with about 30 young scholars around how to engage stakeholders in a meaningful way in our research. A recurrent theme was the need to have time to connect with people outside academia, build relationships and build trust. Time to actually listen to the needs of communities. But the emphasis on time also brought up a challenge: how, during a PhD, can we find time to both engage in a meaningful way with stakeholders and write high-quality scientific papers?
During one of the coffee breaks, Karen Esler shared some of her experience on this topic with Jessica Cockburn:
As Karen mentions, one strategy to deal with this tension is to make transdisciplinary research a team effort and not an individual endeavour. Your own PhD research can be part of a bigger project that is already established, where some of that time-consuming trust-building has already been done. Another strategy is to connect with partners outside the university that can facilitate the participatory process.
From this discussion I’m more hopeful that there are ways to work this out in the current system. However, in the longer-term, I still think there is a need to question the major incentive for researchers to allocate most of their time to producing scientific publications.
At the “young” scholars session during the conference, organized by Jessica Cockburn, Vanessa Masterson, Odirilwe Selomane and Marika Haeggman, we had a chance to further reflect on our competencies and identity as place-based social-ecological systems researchers.
One of the participants, Megan Davies, highlighted the difference between going into a familiar vs. an unfamiliar context to do research. Megan and I both do transdisciplinary research with a municipality in our vicinity, in South Africa and Sweden respectively. This facilitates our understanding of the system, the power dynamics and the culture, and could also decrease the time needed for trust-building and stakeholder mapping. On the other hand, researchers working in a familiar context could have more pre-assumptions, and it could be difficult to be critical when research “subjects” are also friends and collaborators.
For panelists Joana Carlos Bezerra and presenter Shauna Mahajan, doing research in communities far from home raised other issues, such as not speaking the language, having to use translators, and relying on key individuals to access a community. One of the presenters, Johan Enqvist, reflected on whether “objectivity” in this type of research is actually more about reflecting and questioning our values and assumptions. By being critical, for example, and exploring the potential adverse effects of initiatives that we think are good.
The ethical dilemmas we face in conducting transdisciplinary and place-based research was another important discussion point. By transdisciplinary research I refer to approaches that include multiple scientific disciplines (interdisciplinarity) and include the active input of practitioners from outside academia. Vanessa Masterson shared an interesting insight from her work in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, where she faced a dilemma in providing honest (critical) feedback to the community, which might jeopardize the relationship of trust she built with them during her research. How do we meet the expectations of the local communities we work with? Another panelist, Tom Chaigneau, proposed that instead of disseminating our findings, which are often complex, we could throw a party for the research participants!
For sure, there are no solutions that will fit all cases. Nevertheless, sharing our different experiences certainly provided new ideas and encouraged us to reflect on our roles as researchers. In the end, I think it is this reflection that will help us become better researchers. However, to strengthen and develop this reflectiveness and understanding of how to conduct inter- and transdisciplinary research, we also need to build institutional capacity. We need training for scholars early on in their PhDs, and we also need to create spaces and institutional cultures that encourage reflection. Here, PECS and Future Earth have an important role to play.