Capabilities for doing transdisciplinary research

Categories: working paper
Categories: working paper

Large funders of research are increasingly framing their research investments in terms of societal challenges. When funders like UKRI in the UK look across their portfolios, they often talk about expanding research capacity in a certain area to tackle these challenges. Say in AI research, or climate change, or sustainability. or even economic productivity.

This capacity to conduct research across a portfolio, or country, can be thought of as a set of aggregate individual capabilities (researchers) and collective capabilities (research groups, labs projects). So we could ask, what exactly are the research capabilities needed to actually do societal challenges?

Here’s a series of Tweets about a new working paper that attempts to answer precisely this question:

Big funders like @UKRI & @ESRC like to direct the work of sustainability researchers to solving “societal challenges”. @Ola_Michalec, @DrJRMoon and I wanted to know what sort of _research capabilities_ are needed to actually tackle these challenges

In particular, funders love ‘transdisciplinary’ research right now – this means working with scholars in other disciplines, and also working with folks outside of universities. In NGOs, businesses, social enterprises. We found this kind of research requires some special capabilities.

Here’s a list of capabilities we found when we looked into what kind of transdisciplinary capabilities are valued by researchers themselves. In projects combining soil science and economics for example, or social practice theory and the politics of water engineering.

List of capabilities from the working paper

It turns out that the capabilities most valued by researchers we studied tend to be *transgressive* — researchers and colleagues really valued being able to confront and distribute power in their research.

That meant having research projects where the research questions weren’t overly influenced by certain disciplines, where partners south of the equator had equal say and equal pay, and where enough time was given by funders to cultivate as well as maintain research capabilities

And for the research on research geeks out there, our evaluation framework brings together ideas from Sen and Robeyn’s version of the Capabilities Approach, bibliometric analysis and science mapping, and inductive qualitative research.

The research is now published as a working paper in the SPRU Working Paper Series.


Title: Capabilities for Transdisciplinary Research. An Evaluation Framework and Lessons from the ESRC Nexus Network +

Authors: Cian O’Donovan, Ola Michalec, Josh Moon.

Abstract Research framed to address global, grand and societal challenges has brought fresh impetus to calls by funding agencies for transdisciplinary research. Yet the urgency of such calls is not matched by sufficient knowledge of how to foster and maintain the capabilities to do transdisciplinary work. Significant gaps exist in how to cultivate and maintain transdisciplinary methods, practices and the underlying capabilities required to support them. This paper employs a capability approach to construct a realist evaluative framework with which to assess such capabilities. The framework is operationalised through a novel three-stage mixed method procedure which seeks to evaluate transdisciplinary capabilities as they are valued and experienced by researchers themselves. The procedure is tested on a portfolio of five ‘pump-priming’ projects funded by the ESRC Nexus Network +. The paper reports a set of transdisciplinary capabilities valued by nexus research participants and found to varying degrees within each of the research projects. We find that pump-priming investments are sites of research capability development in three ways; through convening cognitive capabilities; cultivating transgressive capabilities; and maintaining backstage capabilities over durations that extend beyond the beginning and end of individual projects. Furthermore, for researchers, it is the transgressive quality of these capabilities that is most salient. Directing greater attention to these different modes of capability development in pump-priming research programmes may be useful in growing and steering research system capacity towards contemporary and future societal needs.

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