KNOTS Summer School: The Benefits of Using Transdisciplinary Research for Impacting Policy Change
Written by Robert Irven
Project Manager, Center for Social Development Studies, Chulalongkorn University
The 2017 KNOTS Summer School program kicked off in mid-September with students from an array of Southeast Asian universities converging in Tam Dao, Vietnam to join professors and experts from both European and Asian universities to learn both the theory and practice behind transdisciplinary methods. After a week of formal workshops and seminars in the misty mountains of north Vietnam, the group traveled to Duong Lam UNESCO World Heritage Village to put into practice what they learned and engage further with the community there for another week.
While initially difficult to grasp and often equally hard to plan and implement, the foundations and practice of transdisciplinary research have the important ability to create more inclusive and impactful projects, better benefitting the community and transferring knowledge to multiple parties. In a development climate where community engagement, particularly of the most marginalized populations, justice seeking and empowerment have become the goals of practitioners and increasingly, researchers, utilizing a transdisciplinary methodology and mindset can help achieve the goals of both scientists and participants, closing the gap that often exists in such settings. Throughout the training and subsequent field work, I not only found the methodology sessions but also the conversations and debates incredibly insightful for my own work, research and future goals. As someone who has taken up work in the development sector with a particular interest in giving voices to members of society long forgotten, ignored or targeted, I believe employing transdisciplinary methods is something that will more easily allow me to achieve those goals.
Summer School Reflections
During the second day of training a discussion in one of my breakouts centered around whether researchers can also serve as activists, something I found very insightful and inspiring. In my own experience, I would say that research/academia often seems quite disconnected from the subjects or calls for justice they seek and the outputs are often presented in a way that prevents the average person from understanding or connecting with the research. The split between academia and non-academia is troubling and with more access to media and information through technology and the internet, this should be leveraged whenever possible, and a transdisciplinary methodology can help fix this and transform academia into a more engaged sector. Not all researchers consider themselves activists and vice versa, but I believe their goals are often aligned and both can learn from each other and learn a lot from using transdisciplinary design and subsequent research methods.
The benefits of conducting research (or activism) using transdisciplinary methods does not come without its many challenges, often presenting themselves at the very beginning. One of the biggest issues I could perceive facing in my own projects in aligning goals (both professional and personal) of a large research team as well as incorporating/creating inclusive collaborations with the community. Setting clear lines of communication and a strong upfront work plan is one way to tackle this issue from the start, and openness and monitoring said goals needs to continue throughout the project. Particularly working with multi-national teams who contain vast yet diverse ideas and experiences is a strength to any project, but it must also be acknowledged that these characteristics also pose a threat to cohesion and understanding of a shared project.
Overall I would say a largely important underlying characteristic of a successful transdisciplinary methodology would be partnerships and communication, both throughout a research team as well as between the multitude of relevant topics and potential engagement opportunities that can present themselves during fieldwork. If one can think of research like a map, all potential routes and ways of transport should be explored if the goal is a non-biased framing and inclusive implementation. While difficult, this method will serve to boost a team’s final products/outputs and hopefully the goals of the stakeholders also involved in the project. This also allows for a mutual learning process rather than simply an informed public, which is one of the goals of transdisciplinary methods. After reflecting on just a few of the topics discussed in the two-week session, I would say that I feel much more confident and prepared to conduct meaningful and effective research in the future. Seeing this topic as an upward trend is also very inspiring to me as it shows that research is evolving with the times and this will hopefully allow for information and knowledge to continue spreading despite more recent, yet isolated instances of attempted silencing and suppression by those who do not see value or validity in scientific information. By further broadening the scope and stakeholders involved in research, more people will now not only be able to gain access to the information, but more people will see direct benefits from the actual research conducted, and this should be celebrated as a victory for researchers, activists and the community alike.
Although not all research aims to affect/change policy, the underlying understanding of using transdisciplinary research methods is that it has the inherent ability to more effectively impact formal mechanisms and institutions, due to its inclusivity of multiple, often community-oriented stakeholders and the researchers’ desire to provide a voice to marginalized/ignored populations in society. This concept of “engaged academia” appears to be on the rise, as more people seek to not only publish, but make more tangible and significant impacts with their work, something I believe is an important shift needed now more than ever. With science and hard facts increasingly on the defense, researchers need to continue to transform along their methods to stay relevant and connect to the larger community. The act of incorporating a wide and diverse set of stakeholders into the planning and research phases creates a more comprehensive group invested in the results of the project, and this evidence-based reporting is then seen as more legitimate, thus having a greater impact on policy makers. Moreover, if government/local officials are brought into the research at the early, planning stages, they will also be more invested in the outcomes and the feeling of inclusion throughout will hold their interest which can often be a challenge when it comes to academia. This notion of engaging policy makers in the long run is important for shaping policy and if it is the goal of a researcher to do so, transdisciplinary research should be given a priority when designing a study.