Hub Emerging Researchers reflect on transdisciplinarity in transformative ocean governance research

By Mia Strand, Kelly Ortega-Cisneros and Alana Malinde S N Lancaster

“We interrogate the role of non-academic collaborators […] and argue that future transdisciplinarity will need to address power imbalances in existing research methods to achieve knowledge co-production, as opposed to knowledge integration”

Transdisciplinarity is a growing expectation of academic research and regarded as an important practice required to reach the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Transdisciplinarity is also indispensable to the success of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030), which sets out visions for developing and supporting the ‘science we need for the ocean we want’ to ensure that we develop ‘transformative’ solutions to achieve the 2030 Agenda (UNESCO, 2020). The UN Ocean Decade calls for connecting ‘ocean science with the needs of society’, further strengthening the demand for research beyond a single discipline. However, there is a lack of consensus among researchers regarding the meaning of transdisciplinarity, and how its operationalisation may be used as a vehicle to meet these global goals (see Jahn et al., 2021).

This blog post briefly introduces the focus of transdisciplinarity within the One Ocean Hub, how early career  researchers are important in the future of transdisciplinary research, and the process of developing this collaborative paper. The post then delves into some of the key findings from the paper, such as the importance of decolonising research methodologies and recommendations for emerging researchers to address asymmetrical power relations in academia. The blog post concludes with six recommendations for the UN Ocean Decade to support emerging researchers in conducting equitable transdisciplinary research for transformative ocean governance*. 

Transdisciplinarity within the One Ocean Hub

The One Ocean Hub places transdisciplinarity as a core principle, justified by the argument that ‘effective transdisciplinarity can bridge gaps among disciplines, sectors, and stakeholders, which is imperative for integrated ocean management that promotes sustainable human coexistence with ocean ecosystems. Transdisciplinarity in ocean research might differ from other research areas, as the vastness, undelinearity, connectivity, and ‘commons’ of ocean areas often make it difficult to identify, analyse, and engage relevant and impacted stakeholders and rights-holders. Due to these complexities, it is even more important to consider the concept of transdisciplinarity in ocean research to ensure that future transdisciplinary research considers aspects such as equity, history, rights, and transformation’.

The importance of emerging researchers leading the way in transdisciplinarity

Emerging researchers working as part of, and often outside of, the One Ocean Hub are ‘tackling societal questions that answer to global calls for sustainability and are classified as ‘half-scientific and half-societal problems’ for which ‘established’ or traditional career paths within a single discipline are ‘generally not appropriate’ (Jaeger-Erben et al., 2018:384). To answer these questions, [emerging researchers] are often required to be ‘embedded sufficiently in a discipline to know that the discipline is in itself diverse and heterogeneous’ (Guimarãesa et al., 2019:6), whilst simultaneously comprehending and applying ‘a large (and far broader) variety of research designs, theories, and methods’ (Ruppert-Winkel et al., 2015:10). Given the lack of consensus within the research community on transdisciplinarity from conceptualisation to application, it can be hypothesised that the exploration and studies  of (…) [emerging researchers] can significantly contribute to the evolution and future application of transdisciplinarity’.

Process of developing the paper

The paper is the product of an exciting and engaging collaborative process between a group of Hub emerging researchers working on different topics, from different disciplines and from a variety of regions. The group was invited to participate in two virtual workshops taking place on 23rd and 27th August 2021 and fill in two pre-workshop questionnaires through the One Ocean Hub’s Early-Career Researchers Network mailing list, led by Dr Michel Wahome (University of Strathclyde, UK). The questionnaires were developed to understand and explore different ways of conceptualising transdisciplinarity and transformative ocean governance within the Hub, and the main findings of each questionnaire informed the two workshops’ topic discussions, facilitated by Dr Kelly Ortega-Cisneros (University of Cape Town, South Africa), Dr Holly Niner (University of Plymouth, UK) and Mia Strand (Nelson Mandela University, South Africa). During the workshops, the online tool Mural was used to allow multiple contributors to share their ideas, thoughts, and opinions using simulated “post-it” notes on an online whiteboard.

Following the workshops, the questionnaire results, workshop recordings, chat transcript, and mural boards were made available to all participants, and information was collated and grouped into broad themes such as points of agreement and disagreement, challenges of transdisciplinarity, engaging stakeholders as collaborators, and the continuum of transdisciplinarity. The emerging researchers then highlighted the sections they wanted to write, and all workshop participants are authors of the final paper. During the writing period, a couple of virtual writing retreats were organised using Zoom, and the emerging researchers met periodically to discuss arising challenges, disagreements or opportunities, such as where to publish the paper. The final version of the paper was submitted to the ICES Journal of Marine Science special issue Rising Tides on 7th June 2022, and accepted 21st August 2022 – almost exactly a year after the workshops.

Key findings from the paper 

The importance of decolonising research methodologies 

‘In order to develop decolonised transdisciplinary research methodologies, emerging researchers, as the future of transdisciplinary research, need to consider and conceptualise how previous research practices may have marginalised non-academic stakeholders. Building trust and relationships with participants before conducting research will better facilitate a transfer of local knowledge. Furthermore, researchers will need to maintain flexibility in their planning and execution of methodologies as the needs and contributions of partners emerge’.

‘As a result, emerging researchers should embrace methodologies that evolve within the process of discovery, where the direction of the research is driven by existing knowledge instead of assumptions and generalisations (Newbrough, 1995). It is important to understand how local knowledge may have previously been ignored (see Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2013), be sensitive to the situation and allow methodologies to adapt to a specific narrative (see Nhemachena et al., 2016). Awareness of how knowledge co-production with non-academics is often influenced by ‘asymmetric power relations and colonial patterns of behaviour’ that are rooted in academic culture and practices is also important (Manuel-Navarrete et al., 2021). Emerging researchers can strive to achieve equity in research practices if consideration is given to different ways of knowing, knowledge and knowledge systems (Manuel-Navarrete et al., 2021). This reiterates the need to build capacity and skills to conduct this, and to share tools, good practices, as well as lessons learnt, among researchers to enhance capacities’. 

Recommendations for emerging researchers to address asymmetrical power relations in academia 

‘Acknowledging that emerging researchers are in many cases pioneers of transdisciplinarity, supervision for such methodologies may not be readily available. Senior researchers responsible for emerging researchers’ development and support should therefore be open to the challenges presented by methods developed by emerging researchers, projects and their established or favoured techniques for knowledge creation’. Emerging researchers ‘have the opportunity to influence the future of academia and advocate a move towards a more pluriversal (instead of a one-size-fits-all universal) view of science and knowledge production that recognises a multitude of knowledges, knowledge production methods, and knowledge outputs (see Mignolo, 2000)’. 

‘Recognising that transdisciplinarity is an evolving concept, (…) [emerging researchers] working within transformative ocean governance should consider whether their conceptualisations and applications of transdisciplinarity recognises the possible coloniality of research methods, critically engages with assumptions of universality and challenges asymmetrical power relations between different knowledge holders.’ 

Recommendations for how emerging researchers could address such aspects include to:

  • actively include and cite other sources/knowledge outputs in research, such as oral stories, fiction, poetry, songs, and art, as well as policy briefs and non-academic reports;
  • publish in open access journals (and request publishers to waive or reduce open access fees for researchers and institutions in the “Global South” if these are prohibitive);
  • ensure sources and authors cited are contextually relevant to the research and argument;
  • include research “participants” as collaborators and coauthors on research design and outputs;
  • actively cite and include authors and institutions in the “Global South”;
  • consider translation of research outputs to the home language of participants or relevant communities;
  • scrutinise research methodologies utilised in cited research.”

‘For transdisciplinary research to challenge top-down, vertical, asymmetric, and universal knowledge production methods, it is necessary that (i) non-academic stakeholders are recognised as experts in their own right, (ii) alternative research outputs are recognised as ‘science’, and (iii) access to peer-reviewed research is improved (through e.g. translations, diversifying science communication methods and open access publication).’

Recommendations for the UN Ocean Decade in supporting emerging researchers to conduct transdisciplinary research for transformative ocean governance

Whether ocean researchers (at an earlier or later stage in their career) can pursue transdisciplinarity according to the recommendations above depends greatly on externally imposed conditions, often set by ocean research funders. One Ocean Hub researchers have already identified some barriers and enablers that ocean research funders (and in fact also development funders) should keep in mind to ensure that at a minimum they do not inadvertently prevent or undermine transdisciplinary research efforts. Equally, there is a crucial opportunity for the UN Decade for Ocean Science to raise awareness about these concerns, and share practices that instead enhance opportunities for transdisciplinarity in ocean research and ocean-related development cooperation. To that end, the emerging researchers have distilled the following recommendations to funders:

  • Facilitate transdisciplinary training to develop cognitive facilitation and communication skills in the early stages of a research career (to develop the necessary skills to approach the increasingly complex societal challenges we face);
  • Support capacity-building processes for researchers to conduct more equitable knowledge production that gives equal consideration to different ways of knowing, knowledges and knowledge systems; 
  • Encourage established researchers and research institutions to share tools, good practices and lessons learnt on equitable and decolonial research methodologies; 
  • Support emerging researchers in collaborative research endeavours (working with non-academic collaborators in developing co-designed knowledge production processes);
  • Adopt and promote flexible funding mechanisms which makes it easier to involve non-academic collaborators in defining the research objectives iteratively and adapt the research approach to evolving understanding of needs and knowledge; 
  • Develop a clear definition of transdisciplinarity in ocean governance research, which highlights the importance of knowledge co-production with non-academic collaborators from the very beginning of the research project.

Read the full paper Transdisciplinarity in transformative ocean governance research—reflections of early career researchers here

* It is important to note that most of the sections are copied directly or partly from the academic paper, written by Mia Strand (Nelson Mandela University), Kelly Ortega-Cisneros (University of Cape Town), Holly J Niner (University of Plymouth), Michel Wahome (University of Strathclyde), James Bell (Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science), Jock C Currie (South African National Biodiversity Institute), Hashali Hamukuaya (Nelson Mandela University), Giulia La Bianca (University of Plymouth), Alana Malinde S N Lancaster (The University of the West Indies), Ntemesha Maseka (Nelson Mandela University), Lisa McDonald (Glasgow School of Art), Kirsty McQuaid (University of Plymouth), Marly M Samuel (Glasgow School of Art) and Alexander Winkler (Rhodes University).

Image: Margherita Brunori