Reflections: Embracing Uncertainty & Interdisciplinary Research

Any project which has environmental planning experts, biologists, computer scientists and local stakeholders involved is going to be appealing to SRNers, and this is certainly true of the research collaboration taking place between UoN and the Western Australian Government’s Department of Parks and Wildlife which Dr Christian Wagner spoke about. As well as the details of the research project, my curiosity was raised about Embracing the Uncertainties of interdisciplinary research itself.

Christian told a story of flying above some of the Australian wetlands that the project centred on. Somewhat confusingly, there wasn’t a single wetland in sight… One quick question later, it turns out that wetlands are not always wet, and, on having this little piece of information available, it became considerably easier to see where the wetlands were. How we can communicate with each other when we don’t even know which words we don’t understand is a big challenge. This is especially the case when words appear to have an obvious, or intuitive meaning but are in fact being deployed in a technical sense.

The example of wetlands is a good example here, as might other important themes to the research project such as the possible meanings of ‘fuzzy sets’ or ‘environmental values’. Unlike a symbol heavy mathematical expression or Latin infused legal text, none of these are phrases which people immediately stumble over or stare at blankly; yet the differences in meaning, and how we communicate these to each other, is key.

Perhaps the most important asset in this is awareness. In particular awareness of the assumptions made by your ‘home’ discipline: those could be that there is an external world out there which can be measured and described; or that there is such a thing as national interest which drives international relations. Couple this with an ability to ponder on these assumptions, communicate them to others, and take on advice or opinions from remote academic disciplines; and genuine collaboration can begin to emerge.

The word sustainability is already entrenched as having many interpretations with its tripartite schema. Although this does not completely prevent cross-purpose conversation (I’ve witnessed a bizarre argument over the sustainability of a project which was making lots of money but required heavy use of pesticides), perhaps it encourages an ability to see multiple perspectives in sustainability researchers. And together with the complex and interrelated nature of the topic of sustainability research itself, perhaps it places the onus on us to develop an amenity with inter- and transdisciplinary research.

Tom West

PhD Candidate, School of Law

BSc (Mathematics); MSc (Law and Environmental Science)

Tom’s post relates to an SRN event which took place February 27th 2014 with Dr Christian Wagner. More information about the event can be found here

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