This blog post originally appeared in Integration and Implementation Insights and is reposted with the author’s permission.
Why is transdisciplinary research often so difficult? What are the key challenges that need to be overcome to efficiently co-produce knowledge across academic disciplines, policy contexts and societal domains?
LIRA 2030 grantees have identified five key challenges when we analysed five projects implemented in nine African cities which were part of the Leading Integrated Research for Agenda 2030 in Africa (LIRA) program (Odume et al., 2021).
The report captures key achievements, insights and lessons learned by the Leading Integrated Research for Agenda 2030 in Africa programme (LIRA 2030 Africa) during its six-year time frame from 2016 to 2021.
Challenge #1: Conceptual threshold crossing
Science-policy-society interactions require active the engagement of diverse actors, often with different discursive language and epistemic backgrounds. Translating academic discourse into accessible everyday language can be challenging. In the same vein, policy and societal actors use discourse unfamiliar to academic actors.
Conceptual threshold crossing in terms of intellectual, ontological, and cognitive transformation is particularly challenging when projects are not just about understanding problems or raising awareness, but about true co-production of knowledge and co-ownership of the resulting outcomes. The challenge is exacerbated:
- as diversity increases. The more diverse the academic disciplines, policy contexts and societal domains of the participants, the greater the conceptual thresholds that have to be crossed
- when past experience in integrative research projects is limited. The less exposure participants have had to the other sectors, the harder it is to cross the conceptual thresholds.
Challenge #2: Resource-use intensity
Inadequate availability of resources such as time, human resources and funds can pose a significant challenge. The frequency and intensity of engagement between the science, policy and societal actors is costly in terms of scheduling of meetings and finding venues for such meetings, as well as time. It is often difficult to schedule meetings that suit all critical actors. Project implementation can therefore be slow. Further, trying to find common ground, which often shifts as projects progress, can impede the pace of project implementation.
Challenge #3: Power differentials, values, and ethics
Science-policy-society interactions have inherent power differentials. Academic actors, for example, are epistemically powerful in the academic discourse of projects, whereas policy actors are influential in determining whether project outcomes get to be used in the policy arena.
The influence of power and diverse values becomes even stronger in projects implemented in contested spaces. This requires tactful balancing of different interests, values, and power dynamics. Particularly important is to ensure that the voices of less powerful actors are not only captured, but also reflected in project implementation and outcomes.
Challenge #4: Walking the last mile
We use the analogy ‘walking the last mile’ to illustrate the importance of ensuring that discontinuity and participation fatigue are adequately managed. This ensures that the interests of critical actors in projects are sustained from co-identification of research problems through co-production and dissemination.
Our experience suggests that discontinuity and participation fatigue are inevitable. Therefore, building enough redundancy into projects across the science, policy, and society domains is an important strategy for coping with and adapting to discontinuity. By redundancy, we mean embedding in the projects multiple actors who could play the same or similar roles, so helping to minimise the negative effects of discontinuity of people or ideas.
Challenge #5: A history of academic and practice silos
For academics who have not previously participated in transdisciplinary research projects and knowledge co-production, integration is often a particular challenge. The integration challenge can manifest as conceptual, practical, and/or methodological.
Policy actors often also have a history of working in silos, with little collaboration across different policy sectors. There can also be lack of collaborations across different levels of government, such as local and national.
Strategies for overcoming the challenges
Challenges related to conceptual threshold crossing require reflexive learning and openness.
It may be useful to tackle the challenges of resource-intensiveness, history of academic and practice silos, and discontinuity and participation fatigue together, as these raise the imperative for making resources available for co-production, as well as the importance of capability development and incentivising practitioners and academics involved in co-production for science-policy-society interactions. Specifically, to mainstream science-policy-society interactions through co-production we suggest:
- Addressing academic and practice silos through adequate capability development and incentivising academics and practitioners by engaging them from project inception through implementation and evaluation;
- Stimulating co-production through adequate resources, for example, project funding and mentorship;
- Addressing discontinuity of both ideas and people through redundancies within the project teams and processes.
To balance interests, values, and power asymmetry inherent in co-production spaces, we suggest identifying sources of inherent power and the context of the exercise of power. It is also useful to make explicit the often-implicit assumptions, values, and expectations held by the actors regarding participation in a project.
Do the challenges we have described resonate with your experience? Have you identified additional or different challenges? Are there other strategies for overcoming the challenges that you have found to be effective?
To find out more:
Odume, O. N., Amaka-Otchere, A., Onyima, B., Aziz, F., Kushitor, S. and Thiam, S. (2021). Pathways, contextual and cross-scale dynamics of science-policy-society interactions in transdisciplinary research in African cities. Environmental Science and Policy, 125. (Online – open access) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2021.08.014
Oghenekaro Nelson Odume PhD is an Associate Professor and Director of the Institute for Water Research at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa. His key interests are transdisciplinary research in complex social-ecological systems, policy engagement and water resource management.
Akosua B. K. Amaka-Otchere PhD is a Lecturer at the Department of Planning, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana. Her key interests are transdisciplinary work, policy engagement, monitoring and evaluation, and gender analysis in regional and urban planning, energy, and environment.
Blessing Nonye Onyima PhD is a dedicated Senior Lecturer at the Sociology and Anthropology Department, which is housed within the Faculty of Social Sciences at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, located in Akwa, Nigeria. She actively engages in qualitative ethnographic research, exploring diverse themes that encompass culture, health, gender, environment, conflict, and transdisciplinary research.
Fati Aziz PhD is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, USA. Her research interests are natural resource management and stakeholder engagement, with a primary objective of bridging the gap between scientific knowledge and practical implementation.
Sandra Boatemaa Kushitor PhD is a population scientist based at the Ensign Global College, Kpong, Ghana and Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa. She applies theoretical and methodological perspectives from the social sciences to understand population health in her research focusing on three distinct yet related areas of population health: population shifts, public health nutrition and governance.
Sokhna Thiam PhD is an Associate Research Scientist at the African Population and Health Research Center, Dakar, Senegal. Her research focus is on investigating the impacts of global environmental change on health with particular attention to climate change and its impact on health. Her broader interests are in applying transdisciplinary and systems thinking approaches on research evidence generation, policy and community engagement.