Global sustainability: universities need a diet of apples and oranges

Mismatches are messing with the future of interdisciplinary research. matthewreid

Global sustainability: universities need a diet of apples and oranges

Water, food and energy issues are increasingly recognised as key global challenges for the 21st century. Each requires and attracts substantial research attention, and tackling them inevitably requires interdisciplinary (ID) or transdisciplinary (TD) research approaches (such as working across disciplines, sectors, scales, biophysical and social science paradigms, and research and practice). And yet the “value” of inter/transdisciplinary (ID/TD) research seems to remain controversial. Why?

Barriers to doing ID/TD research are of course not a new issue and have been discussed extensively, including here and here on The Conversation.

What is troubling though, is that so many challenges persist, despite having been recognised for so long. This continues to pose difficulties for researchers who undertake ID/TD research, including obtaining funding, recognition, and career opportunities. This is despite widespread rhetoric espoused in support of such research. It’s problematic if we are genuinely interested in addressing complex, multi-scale and globally significant issues.

Tensions arise when universities, research funders and academic communities act to evaluate what they consider to be “good” research. This dictates patterns of future resourcing, career recognition and institutional legitimacy.

In short, it’s difficult to do research you consider to be good or important if the powers that be do not. However, for ID/TD research this is all too commonly the situation faced. It can, in turn, discourage efforts to address important global sustainability challenges.

There are two core mismatches at the heart of this dilemma:

1) A focus on quantity of research output in combination with a narrow view of quality (for example, journal prestige).

2) Applying narrow concepts of “rigour” that do not fit with ID/TD research.

So let’s look at these mismatches more closely.

Mismatch 1

Relying on research quantity and journal prestige to measure performance is partly a consequence of a strong push by universities and government to “measure” and compare research from across more-or-less all academic fields according to common metrics.

At an individual level it is easier to claim to be a research leader when your name is on 200 papers rather than 10. Of course, the name and prestige of the journals also counts highly. These are understandable proxies for some aspects of research quality and novelty.

But on their own they are insufficient. There are far fewer highly-ranked journals focused on ID/TD research fields, and ID/TD research often involves “messy” real-world contexts not easily amenable to piecemeal approaches. In this light, ID/TD research is almost always at a substantial disadvantage.

The recent controversy about the ERA scheme demonstrates a “one-size-fits-all” measurement of research performance is problematic at best and arguably misleading or impossible at worst. Nevertheless, such recognition seems to be doing little to dampen the momentum of university administrators in re-gearing entire institutions around such criteria.

This focus on quantity and a narrow view of expertise is somewhat ironic. One of the key contributions a researcher can make is to enhance understanding of the world, and develop more effective ways of responding to “real” challenges. Trying to publish a great quantity of papers, or even “gaming” the publication system, departs from this goal.

Focusing on research quantity can also lessen the contribution of the research, due to increasing competitive demands on researcher time and resources. Researchers have an incentive to publish smaller “pieces” of research in the short-term, which can discourage investigation of more interconnected and longer-term phenomena.

Mismatch 2

There seems to be a persistent misunderstanding underpinning the belief that research can be objectively compared and measured to reflect “rigour” and “quality” for ID/TD research.

Such research often involves human, social and qualitative dimensions. Traditional (positivist) attributes of research quality are “validity” and “reliability”. However, ID/TD research is much more integrative, contextual and unrepeatable. Thus different attributes – such as trustworthiness, relevance, credibility and systemic understanding – are more appropriate (but less measurable) aspects of rigour and quality.

Considering highly cross-cutting ID/TD research can, or should, somehow be subject to the same mechanisms of quality evaluation as scientific experiments in a laboratory is comparing apples to oranges.

What should be done

Universities would be much better placed to address global sustainability challenges if we recognised that both apples and oranges are essential for a balanced diet – disciplinary and ID/TD research are highly complementary. The unique features of ID/TD research should be reflected in how this type of academic research is supported and assessed.

We suggest:

  • richer, more flexible and nuanced approaches to assessing academic performance within universities

  • greater organisational recognition, support and resourcing for individuals and groups doing ID/TD research

  • postdoctoral and early-career research positions that are specifically for ID/TD researchers, which are based on an appropriate range of criteria (such as “real-world” relevance and work spanning research and practice)

  • recognising ID/TD research produces multiple types of outcomes (academically, professionally, socially), not just academic papers alone, because it is critically engaged with real situations

  • building institutional structures within universities that support cross-cutting research – both across disciplines and paradigms, as well as between research and practice (such as beyond the university).

Global sustainability problems are complex, interconnected and contextual. They demand ID/TD approaches. We are concerned that there is still a substantial gap between the rhetoric and the practice of supporting this type of academic research, underpinned by a persistent under-appreciation of its nature and value.

This is a significant problem that can discourage individuals from engaging in ID/TD research. We risk reducing the individual and collective capabilities of researchers to address issues of global significance over the longer term. Such capabilities are vital if academic research is to remain relevant and useful in responding to pressing global issues and “making the world a better place”.