In the beginning of February, LimnoTip had a successful project meeting at the beautiful site of “Lunz am See” in the middle of Austria. Against our expectations the lake was not frozen. It was warmer than average during this month like in other places in Europe as well. Lunz is one place where our colleagues conduct mesocosm experiments to see how browning and temperature increase might change the community of phytoplankton and zooplankton. We thank Martin Kainz for the great organization of this meeting!
This meeting once again exemplified the challenge of interdisciplinary collaboration between ecologists and social-system-oriented ecologists. The latter might be called the middle-men to ‘real’ social scientists and support a preliminary step to real interdisciplinary work. From the perspective of empirical ecologists without interdisciplinary experiences, every activity, not necessarily research, that somehow relates to stakeholder involvement, is often appointed to social science. This can include for example the creation of environmental awareness through public media or education exercises to make people better understand and support current ecological research. But these activities are mostly beyond the research scope, imply a political agenda and are rather addressed for example by non-governmental organizations.
Before contrasting expectations about potential research outcome arise, we are asked to specify more clearly our interrelations with colleagues. This includes necessary data collection and exchange, suitable methods for analyses and the added value from our interdisciplinary collaboration. So, how are the tasks distributed among interdisciplinary researchers particularly in sustainability science? The ‘old’ way would ask for example the ecologists to collect and analyze data and the social scientists to disseminate the results to the broad public. However, our understanding today acknowledges that this “top down” approach seldom works for the management of social-ecological systems. Nowadays, we aim to integrate stakeholder interests from the beginning and let them for example design the scenarios to be investigated using simulation models. But in order to develop appropriate models, we depend on long-term expertise on the specific ecosystem and its generalizable processes. So it is always good to know the experts in the team. The scenario analyses might then create new hypotheses about the systems behavior which has to be checked with the disciplinary experts before it can be discussed with the stakeholders.
In conclusion, interdisciplinary collaboration is a continuously challenging process where openness, clear communication and the willingness to expand ones own research field are valuable assets. To enable that this research journey becomes fruitful for all parties, it is sometimes necessary to plan beyond short project time frames.
What kind of challenges did you encounter within interdisciplinary projects? Please feel free to share your experiences under comments and we will definitely follow up on this!