RESEARCH LIFE

To make transdisciplinary research flourish, care is needed

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Amid an academic system that values lightning fast publication of journal articles, relies on competitive, short-term external funding, four early career researchers reflect on how academic life can improve for both science and the people dedicated to it. Photo: H. Olofsson/azotelibrary.com

Mental health struggles among sustainability researchers are rife. A new paper seeks to balance the competing demands of science with that of self-care

Story highlights

  • Despite vocal support and encouragement, transdisciplinary research is still not well understood, supported, or valued at the discipline or institutional level
  • A new paper develops the notion of the ‘Triple-S’: caring for Science, Society and Self, which engages the frequently overlooked personal aspects of transdisciplinary research
  • The researchers outline changes needed to enable transdisciplinary research to come in line with the Triple-S, balancing competing demands of scientific rigour, societal impact, and self-care

SCIENCE, SOCIETY, SELF: Sustainability researchers are increasingly turning to transdisciplinary research to address the urgent and complex challenges of the Anthropocene.

This type of scholarship involves careful, time-consuming collaboration with societal actors to co-produce solutions to often difficult or contentious issues, while making sure values, preferences and ownership are all painstakingly taken into account.

Although no easy task, it’s made harder by an academic system that values lightning fast publication of journal articles, relies on competitive, short-term external funding, and that is not set up to reward societal impact.

And it’s not only this. Mental health struggles among sustainability researchers are rife.

Overlooked aspects

So how can we nurture balanced and flourishing transdisciplinary research practice that takes into account the often overlooked personal sphere, as well as the need for systemic changes to academic culture?

A new paper written by four early career researchers synthesises their own and other early career experiences of using transdisciplinary research.

The study, which was led by centre researcher My Sellberg, develops the notion of the ‘Triple-S’: caring for Science, Society and Self, and engages the frequently overlooked personal aspects of transdisciplinary research.

While it is well established that transdisciplinary researchers have to meet the demands of achieving both scientific rigour and societal relevance, the Triple-S acknowledges the often unspoken and under-rated demand of Self.

My Sellberg, lead author

Caring research

The researchers then developed a theory of change, a step-by-step outline of the activities and changes needed to enable transdisciplinary research to come in line with the Triple-S - to balance the competing demands of scientific rigour and excellence, societal impact and engagement, and self-care.

“In developing our vision of a flourishing transdisciplinary research practice, it became clear that care is an essential value in transdisciplinary research practice and that a more caring academic environment is an important enabling factor of this vision,” say the authors.

First, care is needed to build trust and establish collaborations with academic and non-academic actors in transdisciplinary research settings.

Second, caring postgraduate supervision can support transdisciplinary early-career researchers to take care of themselves on their journeys in a disciplinary academic world, as well as concerning the emotional and time difficulties that emerge from relationships with academic actors from different disciplines and non-academic actors.

Third, care can help to focus on what is important, especially in times of the COVID-19 pandemic, and redefine excellence in teaching and research.

“We hope the Triple-S can guide academic environments to become places where transdisciplinary research practice can flourish and the next generation of researchers are not burnt-out, but empowered,'' conclude the authors.

Link to publication

Theory of change towards research environments that foster flourishing transdisciplinary research practice in line with the Triple-S. Illustration by Liezl Kruger

Published: 2021-09-13

Related info

Sellberg, M.M., Cockburn, J., Holden, P.B., Lam, D.P.M. 2021. Towards a caring transdisciplinary research practice: navigating science, society and self. Ecosystems and People, 17:1, 292-305, DOI: 10.1080/26395916.2021.1931452

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