Can 1+1 equal more than 2?

Interdisciplinarity is a popular word that crops up often and in many different contexts. But how does interdisciplinarity work in practice, if at all? A major research centre in Oslo is seeking to provide answers to these questions.

Haakon Thaulow and Vibeke Nenseth of CIENS. (Photo: Siw Ellen Jakobsen)

The Oslo Centre for Interdisciplinary Environmental and Social Research (CIENS) was founded with interdisciplinary collaboration as part of its fundamental structure. Researchers from CIENS are now in the process of delivering results from a project that has sought to identify obstacles to and opportunities for interdisciplinary environmental research. One of the project’s main conclusions is clear: some interesting new knowledge is being generated in the interface between subject fields.

“An interdisciplinary approach to natural and social sciences is essential for solving key environmental problems. But there are some obstacles to interdisciplinary research that we need to overcome if cooperation is to succeed at an even deeper level,” say Haakon Thaulow and Vibeke Nenseth of CIENS.

More relevant research?

Some three years after nine environmental and social science research institutes came together under one roof at the Oslo Innovation Center the partners still believe strongly in their interdisciplinary project. But they want to be able to work together even more effectively in the future. That is why they are seeking to identify the factors that foster – and those that hamper – an interdisciplinary approach.

“Interdisciplinarity is one of the main pillars of CIENS. However, we know that there are institutional, financial and motivational obstacles that can make an interdisciplinary approach difficult in practice. We have sought to examine this issue more systematically, initially in the form of a pilot project,” explains Haakon Thaulow.

“One central question is whether an interdisciplinary approach produces research that has greater political relevance. As an applied research centre, this is the most important criterion for us,” he states. Thaulow is Senior Adviser at the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA) and initiator and head of the joint strategy programme for research cooperation at CIENS.

Both quantify and explain

Environmental problems do not just come out of chimneys and pipes and cannot be solved in isolation from the people who create – and are exposed to – them. As the understanding of this has grown, environmental research across disciplines and scientific cultures has become increasingly widespread. There is greater recognition of the need for researchers who can both explain the causes and deal with the impacts of environmental change, who can both quantify and explain.

“The establishment of CIENS in 2006 was in part motivated by a strong belief in the fact that cooperation across the disciplines of natural and social science generates better environmental research. This is an instance where 1 + 1 equals more than 2,” states Thaulow.

Garnering experience

In the Norwegian context CIENS is unique, but it has strong interdisciplinary models abroad to follow. Two of them are the University of East Anglia in England and the Institute for Environmental Studies in Amsterdam.

“An important part of our project has involved garnering experience abroad, through study visits and drawing up overviews of international environmental research,” says Vibeke Nenseth, Chief Research Sociologist at the Institute of Transport Economics and Project Manager of CIENS’ pilot project on interdisciplinarity.

Scepticism towards other fields an obstacle

Innovative thinking emerges in the areas where different disciplines intersect. This is one of the project’s clear-cut conclusions. But experience shows that there are two major obstacles to interdisciplinary research: funding and scientific recognition.

“This is due to a large extent to the fact that educational programmes and publication channels are still largely monodisciplinary,” says Nenseth. Another important factor, according to Nenseth, is the scepticism that many have to ideas outside their own fields. “There is much to suggest that researchers must feel confident and well-grounded in their own disciplines before they can be open to others,” she states.

In a larger-scale project, an extension of the pilot study, CIENS will take a closer look at its own interdisciplinary projects as they are nearing conclusion. The objective is to learn from the success stories as well as the failures. What sort of problems do Norwegian researchers encounter? To what extent and in what ways have the research results had an impact in the political sphere?

Situation improving

According to Thaulow and Nenseth the prospects for interdisciplinary research are hopeful.

“The term is no longer simply a buzzword. The most obvious evidence that things are moving in the right direction are the strategies being established for interdisciplinary research programmes and centres. In addition, new forms of funding that promote interdisciplinarity have also emerged. The EU research programmes are a particularly good example of this.”

In Norway, the Research Council has long sought to facilitate interdisciplinary research. In the field of environmental research this has partly been done through the MILJO 2015 programme – Norwegian Environmental Research Towards 2015.

Source: The Research Council of Norway

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