The big challenges in the field of water call for transdisciplinary research, which integrates the input from several disciplines as well as practical knowledge. I discussed this approach recently with our colleagues at the Swiss institute, Eawag. Transdisciplinary research is challenging because of the social, institutional and substantial obstacles. It calls for clever organisation but also new competences from the researchers
We can’t solve the big water challenges by taking a monodisciplinary perspective. Think, for instance, of water scarcity, flooding and the replacement of aged infrastructure. We can’t tackle these kinds of questions with technical expertise alone. They require the input of engineers and scientists, but also of administration specialists, geographers, economists or jurists. Furthermore, we won’t manage with exclusively scientific knowledge. For innovations to succeed, we also have to draw on the experiential knowledge of policy-makers, entrepreneurs or maintenance engineers.
Integrating different types of knowledge and experience
This integration of different types of knowledge and experience is in fact referred to in the scientific literature as ‘transdisciplinary research’: ‘a form of knowledge development in which researchers from different scientific disciplines collaborate with societal stakeholders’.
At KWR we believe in this transdisciplinary approach, and we try to apply it to a variety of projects, such as those in the Joint Research Programme with the water utilities, the Water Quality Knowledge Impulse and the Water Knowledge Action Programme. But this isn’t always easy, since you have to build bridges between different perceptions/experiences and between different organisations.
Obstacles to transdisciplinary research
Last month I was in Switzerland to discuss our experience in this area with our colleagues at Eawag, a prestigious, Swiss-government-funded water institute in Zürich. I distinguished three types of obstacles.
First of all, there are obstacles related to substance. The integration of knowledge from different disciplines, and the integration of practical knowledge with scientific knowledge, is difficult, because you need time to discuss theoretical principles and methods which are self-evident to your colleagues in the same field. It therefore helps to take the time for reflection and for the joint formulation of objectives, which you can always fall back on.
Social and institutional
Secondly, there are social obstacles. The parties involved have, after all, different wishes and interests and habits that vary. Strong leadership is very useful in overcoming these barriers. Lastly, there are also institutional obstacles, which have to do with the routines, financing and performance criteria in different organisations. Transdisciplinary research requires new forms of quality assurance, so as to test the input from different disciplines. There are as yet relatively few transdisciplinary journals, so it is sometimes difficult to publish the results of this research.
New competences demanded
Knowledge integration therefore requires that research be smartly organised. But it also demands new competences from the researchers. They don’t only have to play the role of ‘neutral’ knowledge provider, but also that of process supervisor, knowledge broker or innovation booster. This brings with it both tensions and dilemmas. In the Water Knowledge Action Programme, for instance, we notice that the managers and staff of the AGV Water Authority, the municipality of Amsterdam and the network company Alliander, really appreciate our researchers’ efforts as process supervisors, but that fulfilling this role means they have less time and attention for knowledge documentation. I would like, in follow-up research, to study these different roles in greater depth. Which circumstances call for which roles? And which competences does this require from researchers? Should researchers become skilled in all of these roles, or would it be better for them to specialise? The Eawag colleagues and I have agreed to work on this together, since these questions arise in their organisation just as much as they do in ours.