Sixty people and great ideas on Transdisciplinary Approaches in Mountain SES

What an amazing turnout! Thanks to all for attending this Roundtable discussion and sharing your ideas and experiences about transdisciplinary science in mountain social-ecological systems. We had a full room at the Royal George with at least sixty people attending. Robin Reid led the conversation, summarizing comments from our panelists: Robert Huber, Michael Quinn, Catherine Tucker, Jayne Glass, Robin Reid herself, Anne Zimmerman, Stefan Schneiderbauer, and Reetu Sogani. Speakers had only 2-3 minutes to express their perspectives but most focused on best practices for transdisciplinary research in mountain regions and barriers to success in transdisciplinary endeavors. Common themes included the need for scientists to commit to long term involvement, embedding in the local context; respect for local knowledge, commitment to co-design and open communication. Additional key points were that actors have different goals that need to be recognized and respected. Reid raised the idea of Trinity of Voice: Access, Standing, Influence: meaning that stakeholders need to have equivalent access to information, equivalent standing in interactions, and equivalent influence to create a fair and legitimate process.  Anne Zimmerman noted that journals and reviewers may not be well adapted to dissemination of transdisciplinary research. Journals are great for disciplinary work, reasonably good for interdisciplinary publications but not really effective (yet) for transdisciplinary dissemination.

Nolin challenged to group to identify the approaches of transdisciplinary research that is specific to mountain regions. Klein noted that compressed gradients in mountain systems affect both social and ecological aspects, that these are specific to mountain regions and require local knowledge.

From there, the discussion became more wide-ranging with most people in the room chiming in at some point. Here, we noted that indeed, scientists are actors in the mountain SES and need to act as an honest broker, that we have an opportunity to understand and link the perspectives of highland and lowland peoples. Scientists starting research in a new area might choose to link with a trusted local organization as a way of accelerating the process of building community trust, access to local peoples, and access to women’s groups. But we need to remember that scientists are actors too and that local organizations have their own agendas (“carry their own baggage”). I’ll add here that funding agencies also have goals and agendas (I won’t dare say “baggage”) and that scientists often find themselves responding to a call for proposals that frames a problem perhaps in a different manner than if they were completely independent (though independence is never really possible in science is it?). The scientist as an actor may be held in high regard with the university able to play the role of long term academic home for their research. Alternatively, university scientists may be held in disdain with the university as their ivory tower. Concerning the actors, what about mountain wilderness areas with no indigenous population? What constitutes the actors in such a case?

Overall, the main themes were (a) long term commitment and involvement; (b) communication with and respect for local peoples; and (c) co-design and co-development of knowledge. While these themes themselves are not specific to mountain regions, their implementation in mountain regions is what makes the mountain transdisciplinary SES work unique.

The organizers and I look forward to your comments!

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2 thoughts on “Sixty people and great ideas on Transdisciplinary Approaches in Mountain SES

  1. Reblogged this on Perth2015 Session Synthesis Blogs and commented:

    I also liked the strong plea for trans-disciplinary mountain research. However, I’d like to stress the difficulties and obstacles of inter-disciplinary research not to be neglected. this is crucial also in relation to contents for trans-disciplinary methods.
    Another aspect we should not miss to be aware is the different and sometimes contradicting views of different actors we have to take into account. Trans-disciplinary work is far from harmony, and choices depend from a wide array of internal and external drivers – but they can be shaped.

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  2. A very big thank you to the organizers of the Round Table on transdisciplinarity! I did not have time until now to engage on a reflection in this blog about several issues that were mentioned during the round table. I’d like to catch up and in particular, draw attention to two websites where people will find very useful resources on transdisciplinarity and co-production of knowledge:

    http://www.transdisciplinarity.ch/e/Transdisciplinarity/ and
    http://www.naturalsciences.ch/topics/co-producing_knowledge

    During the round table someone came up with an important question that no-one dared (?) answer; I wanted to but I felt that I wasn’t really entitled to, as I have never done any action-research myself. “Is action-research and transdisciplinary research the same?”. This is an absolutely crucial question and it would be great if we could have a number of answers about it, as I’m sure a number of people were thinking about this but the conversation took another turn so no-one answered.

    My own answer is: definitely not: action-research is a METHOD developed by the social sciences. Transdisciplinary research is an APPROACH for dealing with complex, “real-world”, and value-laden issues from a much broader integrative perspective. The transdisciplinary approach requires 1) straightforward disciplinary work on issues that can be looked at through the limited but very precise lens of disciplinarity; it also requires 2) interdisciplinary work between the natural and the social sciences, and involving a need for (time-consuming and negotiated) new definitions of problems, methods and epistemologies (as thomasd26 says in the blog, interdisciplinarity is extremely demanding! Courtney Flint also addressed the difficulties of doing truly interdisciplinary work); and finally — but from a temporal perspective, straight from the beginning when scientists embark on a transdisciplinary project — 3) the transdisciplinary approach requires transdisciplinary work, meaning that scientists need to engage in co-production of knowledge with non-scientists. Robert Huber underlined the need to do this from the very beginning, i.e. from the moment of designing the research project itself. I totally agree.

    To come back to the initial question: transdisciplinary work can be achieved through action-research, but it can also be achieved through other methods, e.g. stakeholder workshops, learning for sustainability workshops, etc. As Robin Reid mentioned during the round table, it requires that the researcher relinquish his or her hold on “The Research Question” — something which we find difficult to do. In my understanding, action-research can, but does not necessarily, imply this.

    I look forward to further musings triggered by the round table!

    Liked by 1 person

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