Sunday, September 19

Transdisciplinarity: a pending issue

A few weeks after the first installment of the latest IPCC report, leaked by anonymous members of Scientists Rebellion, and waiting for those who will follow, it is a good time to remember that among the seven major challenges defined by the European research strategy there are four directly related to the climate emergency and the global environmental crisis (climate action, energy transition, transport sustainable, bioeconomy and sustainable agriculture). Solving them is an inescapable condition to get the other three (health, and inclusive, safe and free societies).

This list does not respond to the academically established disciplines, and to address such challenges the European Commission asks the scientific community to get to work in multidisciplinary teams. For example, economics is only mentioned in the sense of “bioeconomy”, which requires that economists, biologists and agronomists work together. To address these systemic and transdisciplinary issues, the new science of sustainability must bring together broad teams and jointly publish results. It is not yet another new discipline, but where all the others must meet to tackle common projects.

But a great aversion to that remains. Each discipline remains closed in on itself, publishing and reading only the magazines of its specialty. And when it comes to incorporating new talent, it reacts by penalizing those who dare to cross disciplinary lines and enter unknown terrain for those who evaluate them. The science of sustainability has given rise to hybrid sub-disciplines with scientific societies, international congresses and impact journals such as ecological economics, agroecology, industrial ecology, human ecology, landscape ecology, environmental sciences, environmental sociology, environmental geography, environmental history, environmental psychology, environmental education, ethnoecology, or political ecology. But except for singular institutes such as ICTA in Barcelona or BC3 in Bilbao, there are no departments or areas of knowledge with such names in universities and research centers in Spain.

The only possibility of developing an academic career in these new fields is the benevolence and open-mindedness of those unidisciplinary departments inherited from the last century. Sometimes that happens, as has been my case as an environmental historian who applies bioeconomic analysis to past and present agrarian systems in an economic history department of a Faculty of Economics and Business. But even though I feel very lucky and grateful, I do not stop living my condition as an environmental historian as an academic ostracism. Environmental history does not exist as such in the science system in Spain. We go to conferences and publish, but we don’t exist.

The problem is that you pay for it. It is paid for by young researchers who are attracted to these new fields, and when they appear for contracts or public competitions they meet with evaluators who block their way with the argument of “that is not my discipline.” In the last call for postdoctoral contracts Juan de la Cierva, three young researchers endorsed by our project have been rejected despite the fact that the team’s scores have been very high. In one case, the candidate presented her proposal by environmental geography and ended up being scored by the “communication” subarea. Another candidate was presented for applied economics and was evaluated by the subarea of ​​”agriculture and forestry” in “agrarian and agri-food sciences”. The third candidate entered the area of ​​”environmental sciences and technologies” and was referred to the subarea of ​​”earth and water sciences”.

In the economy, this behavior can reach worrying extremes, such as when candidates are excluded for publishing in Ecological Economics or other journals whose impact factors place them among the 25% of that area with the highest number of citations (the first quartile), with the argument that “in our area it only counts to publish in those five journals” (those of the ideological string corresponding group). These same economists preach that the absence of a clear and equal incentive structure for all leads to inefficiency and corruption, but when different rules are attributed to those of the entire scientific community to reproduce their orthodoxies, the story does not apply.

In the humanities there is a deep rejection of bibliometric criteria of academic impact. But with few exceptions, as in prehistory and archeology, the aversion to teamwork is such that publishing in co-authorship is considered a demerit. Those who present resumes with publications signed by several authors are penalized, ignoring that to publish in those journals of great scientific impact and social relevance, it is necessary to work in multidisciplinary research teams. And if you work as a team, it is published in co-authorship as established by European and international standards in this regard. In both the humanities and economics, teamwork is conspicuous by its absence and is frowned upon.

No one doubts that each discipline must follow its own research programs, and that hybrid disciplines must interact with their parent disciplines. But the society that pays for our work has the right to ask them to make room for human resources and projects that study the great social challenges of our time. The more they interact with their new hybrid disciplines, the more fresh air will enter the mother-disciplines helping them discover new methodologies for dealing with the complexity of natural and social systems together. And vice versa, it is convenient that multidisciplinary research groups interact with each discipline that welcomes them (so in the long term it is not a good solution that the science of sustainability is limited to some leading research institutes outside the rest of the university system, although its existence is still necessary). The Ministries of Science and Innovation, and of Universities, should consider this problem and put measures in place to help break the unidisciplinary academic shutdown suffered by the entire science system in Spain. Not putting a stop to it means missing many opportunities to participate in the search for solutions to ecological transitions that we urgently need to tackle, such as the agroecological transition that is already in the pipeline of upcoming calls for European research programs.

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