10th December 2020
The fifth in our SHAPE-ID webinar series, Shaping Conversations on Interdisciplinary Research, looked at how the expertise needed to develop and manage inter- and transdisciplinary research projects – sometimes termed integration expertise – can be fostered in academic and professional environments. Drawing on concrete experiences working as integration experts in different European contexts and institutions, panellists Dr Sabine Hoffmann (Eawag – Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology), Dr Petra Biberhofer (Participatory Science Academy, University of Zurich and ETH Zurich) and Dr Nikki Brand (Technische Universiteit Delft) addressed questions around what integration expertise looks like, why it is needed to develop strong collaborative research projects with diverse participants, the profile of the inter- or transdisciplinary scientist or researcher and how to develop such expertise as a professional career path.
Sabine Hoffmann, Head of the strategic research programme Wings (Water and sanitation innovations for non-grid solutions) and Group Leader for Transdisciplinary Research, at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, started by defining her understanding of integration as both a process of combining different disciplinary and sectoral perspectives to address societal problems, and the result of that process. She highlighted that the process needs to be actively managed and cannot be expected to happen without effort. In this context, she discussed the emerging profession of integration experts, who lead and/or advise on “cognitive, social and emotional integration within transdisciplinary projects and programmes”. Sabine emphasised that the role these bridge-builders occupy is not merely a facilitative one but an intellectual one, something that is frequently misunderstood. Integration experts, she argued, are specialists in their own right.
Some are able to position themselves as integration experts, often by creating their own job within organisations while leading ID/TD programmes, while others work in an invisible maze, in between worlds, provide invisible leadership from a supporting role, hold responsibility without authority, inhabit uncomfortable liminal spaces.
Because these roles are not often recognised and rewarded within academia, researchers who develop this skillset frequently end up pursuing careers outside academia, where this expertise is more valued. But to develop better cultures of inter- and transdisciplinary research, academic institutions need to acknowledge the need for such expertise and work to support and develop this profession.
Petra Biberhofer, who until late 2020 designed and coordinated educational offerings at the Participatory Science Academy (PSA), UZH and ETH Zurich, and currently manages the #ConnectingMinds funding programme of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), argued that support structures are essential to developing integration expertise, which cannot only be seen in terms of individual knowledge and competencies. She discussed the example of the PSA, whose mission is to promote participatory collaboration between science and society, mainstream citizen science and enhance its strength as a research methodology. The PSA offers seed grants for teams of researchers and citizens, proposal advice and training on joint problem-framing and how to ensure integration of both disciplinary and citizen perspectives in further steps, as well as developing training and workshops to build integration expertise and other co-creation research competencies. Petra proposed that structures supporting integration expertise can be understood as a kind of “third space initiative”, linked to the “third mission” of Universities to connect research and society. The role, she noted, bridges academic and service activities and occupies an ambiguous space – but this also brings opportunities for creating a transformative learning environment. In addition to being comfortable in boundary roles, Petra outlined several other competencies needed by such an expert, including professional knowledge, knowledge of tools and methods, and social and interpersonal competencies.
Developing third space initiatives where integration expertise is fostered requires rethinking and reshaping traditional structures of higher education institutions, and professionalisation has to happen at these interfaces.
For institutions to foster such expertise, Petra suggested a need for process-oriented learning environments that address not only cognitive, but also “social, emotional and somatic” learning domains. Creating a culture where it is safe to not know, to be imperfect, and where informal learning is encouraged, is important.
Nikki Brand, strategy advisor and researcher in cross-disciplinary learning at Delft University of Technology, presented insights from her experience working on the Resilient Delta Convergence Initiative, which includes researchers from the social sciences, humanities, medicine and engineering, as well as a hospital partner. She defined convergence as a particularly ambitious form of inter- and transdisciplinary learning that is mission-driven, solution-oriented and associated with deep integration. Nikki again emphasised that integration does not happen by itself but requires continuous work and monitoring to avoid falling back into the comfort zones of disciplinary research and approaches. At the Resilient Delta Convergence Initiative, a specific task force has been established for methods and methodologies, which maintains awareness of the ID/TD aims of the project and is a focal point for advice and monitoring progress. Furthermore, not only facilitation but knowledge integration is needed, and this work is often poorly recognised by academic institutions.
If you organise a programme and have a facilitative role in the programme that won’t cut it. You also need knowledge integration, which needs to be done by someone who has expertise in a particular knowledge domain but has to go outside of their comfort zone to integrate their knowledge.
Resilient Deltas tries to accelerate knowledge integration by engaging in a preliminary joint assessment of the problem and area of study, which generates “a kind of shared interdisciplinary hypothesis.” Such efforts at acceleration, Nikki argued, are essential in forging new paths quickly and opening up opportunities to solve problems in new and ambitious ways through inter- and transdisciplinary approaches.
We were joined in the Zoom room by over 120 participants from across Europe as well as from the US, South America and Asia. Questions and contributions from participants led to a wide-ranging discussion on networks and further research to explore integration expertise as a profession and the competency profile of an integration expert. In concluding statements, Petra encouraged institutions to adopt artistic approaches to integration, while Sabine and Nikki encouraged researchers to be bold, follow their passion and risk forging new paths even in the face of institutional obstacles.
 See Pohl C, Klein JT, Hoffmann S, Mitchell C, Fam D. 2021. Conceptualising transdisciplinary integration as a multidimensional interactive process. Environmental Science & Policy 118:18-26. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1462901120314076