Interdisciplinary science – what should we measure, and why?

Research impact assessments of academic environments with bibliometric indicators are becoming increasingly important. Not only do they define where you are placed in international rankings of research institutes, but they are also being used as a basis for distribution of funds. This might sound like a smart and simple way to secure funds for world-leading researchers. But it could also create difficulties for interdisciplinary research environments. Here is one example.
Lennart Olsson from Lund University gave an interesting and critical presentation at the Resilience Conference in Arizona early this year, and presented data indicating that resilience thinking has had very little impact in the social science community. The analysis is the following. First, pick the 10 top-ranked social sciences journals (based on Science Gateway) for a few disciplines. Then, search for articles that contain “social-ecological systems” AND “resilience”. The results:

So, is resilience thinking (from a social science perspective) in crisis? If the ambition is to target mainstream top-political science journals, we sure are. Two issues could be raised here however. One: is this really the best way to measure our impact in the social sciences? Why not (just as one example) look for articles that reference Holling’s, Folke’s or Elinor Ostrom’s work for example?

A second, and I would argue more important objection to the analysis, is whether the sort of metric Olsson uses really captures the core ambition of interdisciplinary research. Bluntly put: isn’t the whole point of building interdisciplinary teams, teaching, methods and research networks, to create innovative sustainability science that is hard to classify as “social” or “natural”? These articles are not likely to fit easily into mono-disciplinary social science journals. If that is the case, how do we measure the scientific success of such attempts, without contributing to an artificial split between the “social” and the “natural”?

I assume many of you have had similar experiences or thoughts. Feel free to share in the comment field below.

4 thoughts on “Interdisciplinary science – what should we measure, and why?”

  1. I think many of us working on resilience are interested in building a new sustainability science, and while this requires engaging with many social scientists this does not require publishing in specific journals. Indeed new areas of research often produce new journals, such as GEC or E&S, or new subfields in existing journals – such as sustainability science section in PNAS.

    Such issues are common in science in general, not just in resilience research. Climate change, materials science, computer science, cognitive science, etc – have all faced similar issues.

  2. The link to the Arizona conference above doesn’t actually list Lennart Olsson’s ‘interesting and critical’ presentation. Was it considered too critical to be included at the time?

  3. There is no abstract as it was in a panel
    But by the power of google here it is:

    http://csid.asu.edu/resilience-2011/program/files/Panels/515_Adaptiveness/panel_abstract.txt

    Adaptiveness in Earth System Governance-Ruben Zondervan

    Adaptiveness is one of the five analytical themes of the IHDP Earth System
    Governance Project. The project understands it as an umbrella term for a set
    of strongly related concepts—vulnerability, resilience, adaptation, robustness,
    adaptive capacity, social learning and so on. Each of them alone is too limited
    to describe changes made by social groups in response to, or in anticipation
    of, challenges created through environmental change. Within the framework
    of earth system governance, the term adaptiveness includes the governance
    of adaptation to social-ecological change as well as the processes of change
    and adaptation within governance systems. Adaptation can create winners
    and losers, by, for instance, shifting the distribution of benefits, of involuntary
    risks, or of power. It is often specific to the social-ecological system in
    question, and who benefits from adaptation may not be identical to who has
    to do the adapting. And, the appropriate degree of responsiveness to change,
    and consequently, timeliness, is contested. Key questions therefore are:
    Adaptiveness by what, under which conditions and at what scales? For whom
    and who benefits? To what and with which side-effects? By when?
    Studies of adaptiveness must grapple with both overt political contests and
    more nuanced exercise of power and social control that impact on the
    fairness of adaptation processes and outcomes. The best ways to criticially
    analyze adaptiveness needs further theoretical and methodological
    development and this is the main aims of this panel.
    First, the panellists will briefly present their work undertaken within the
    framework of the earth system governance analytical problem of
    adaptiveness. The empirical foundations of the studies presented are diverse
    but share a common purpose in provoking new and better ways of thinking
    about the concept of adaptiveness from a governance perspective.
    Second, following the brief presentations, a moderated discussion amongst
    panellists and audience will move beyond the immediate content of the
    presentations to the key questions and fundamental issues in the politics of
    adaptiveness and underlying concepts like resilience. The aim is to open up
    space for innovative thinking and further research around the analytical
    problem of adaptiveness in earth system governance.
    Panel participants and papers:
    Victor Galaz – “Earth System Governance Governance and Resilience”
    Kathleen Galvin, David Nkedianye, Robin Reid – “Pastoral Adaptation through
    Governance to Changing African Landscapes”
    Louis Lebel – “Advancing the concept of adaptiveness in Earth System
    Governance”
    Lennart Olsson – “A Critique on Resilience”
    Diana Liverman

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