Tag Archives: transdisciplinarity

Can science deliver? Only twenty more years to come up with sustainable solutions to many planetary dilemmas

Today, April 30, is the last day of the Open Meeting of the International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP).  It is a transdisciplinary meeting where scientists from all over the world come together to discuss solutions to the pressing social and environmental issues facing our societies in the 21st century.  Over the course of 3 days, a multitude of scientific session have been held in parallel and 1200 registered scientists and practitioners have mingled and exchanged ideas.

As an individual, the sheer volume of work presented has been quite overwhelming. Still, some common challenges that we still have not managed to address adequately in today’s scientific community emerge.

These challenges crystallized during the public round table discussion of the opening day. In it a panel of prominent people, scientists from a variety of scientific disciplines as well as practitioners, were gathered to discuss the social challenges of global change and the role of science in the 21st century. A sense of urgency prevailed during the panel debate.

One leading social scientists, Roger Kasperson, feared we may have no more than twenty years to come up with viable solutions to deal with many of the looming problems like climate change, poverty and environmental degradation. So then, what is it that’s missing in our scientific endevours and how can we hope to come up with something useful before the time is out?

Carlo Jaeger, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate research in Germany, believed the way forward lies in pursuing research that treats social and ecological systems as completely integrated and interdependent. Resilience research, focusing on Social-Ecological Systems (SES) have a big and important role to play here and has the potential of leading the field as more and more people become interested in this approach.

But changing our mental models from separate to integrated social and ecological system components may not be enough. As representatives from both the social sciences and humanities pointed out we may also need to question the fundamental value systems upon which much of our science is based. As Kate Brown, from the University of East Anglia in the UK pointed out, values shape people’s perception of what is important and guide moral and ethical choices, To deal with issues such as chronic poverty, and often linked environmental degradation, we have to address value systems.

So transdisciplinary science emerged as the key to success. And the role of young scholars in taking on this challenge was emphasized. But can we wait for an entire new generations of scientists to emerge? If we take Roger Kasperson’s remarks to heart, and aim for solutions in the next twenty years we need to address these issues now. But there are still obstacles that need to be overcome. One major obstacle is the scientific community itself and the structures it has built to ensure quality and integrity. As researchers attempt to cross boundaries, between disciplines and across the boundaries to policy, the traditional methods of quality control and scientific reward systems appear increasingly outdated. This is particularly true for many younger scientists attempting transdisciplinary work but being hampered by the old structures of academic quality control.

James Buizer of Arizona State University pointed to this problem. To speed up transdisciplinary research while simultaneously make sure it maintains a high scientific standard new methods and measures are urgently needed. So as a scientific community we face two major challenges: to produce knowledge that can help society change governance systems for a more sustainable planetary future, while simultaneously transforming our own governance systems to be able to deal with this task!

No small task. But the community of resilience scientists can play an important role in both respects.

Integration of Social Sciences: Mazlish’s the Uncertain Sciences

Many ecologists argue that solving the world’s ecological problems requires a more integrated understanding of human behaviour.  MIT historian Bruce Mazlish argues that the social sciences need more integration to understand humanity. Chapter one is available on the New York Times site.

In Metapsychology Maura Pilotti reviews his book The Uncertain Sciences

In The Uncertain Sciences, Bruce Mazlish presents a cunning and visionary examination of the scientific enterprise of understanding the human species and, by doing so, of its ability to address real life problems. He argues that disciplines that traditionally fall under the nebulous umbrella of Behavioral Sciences, such as Psychology, Anthropology and Sociology, and disciplines that are covered by the even more elusive umbrella of the Humanities, such as History and Philosophy, share a common interest, albeit with a different investigative focus. Namely, their desire is to understand the human condition and thus provide useful insights regarding its opportunities for amelioration. As such, they are the building blocks of what Mazlish calls the “Human Sciences”.

The author argues that the shared goal of all these disciplines would be better served if they were to interact more frequently and openly. He goes even further than simply proposing increased communication among the many and diverse disciplines of the “Human Sciences”. To ensure that these disciplines will transcend their own excessively encapsulated territories, he proposes an institutional change that will force communication and focus them all on their common purpose. Namely, he proposes the development and implementation of academic departments of the History and Philosophy of the Human Sciences.