Transdisciplinary research aims to provide solutions to socially relevant problems. This often requires collaboration between researchers from multiple disciplines – for example, from the social and natural sciences. Transdisciplinary research also involves collaboration between researchers and research users, enabling mutual learning between all participants. These two elements (interdisciplinary and participatory research) can increase the likelihood of the knowledge produced being relevant and usable, and taken up by research users to address real-world sustainability challenges. However, some questions remain unanswered. What are the impacts of transdisciplinary research? Does it really create more useful knowledge? And does the extra investment translate into real-world benefits?
Four hub projects in the Fitzroy catchment worked together to create knowledge around water resource management (Figure 1). These four projects integrated interdisciplinary and cross-cultural perspectives. This Transdisciplinary environmental research project facilitated these four projects (Figure 1) to work together in a transdisciplinary approach that included collaborating closely with research users such as governments, Traditional Owners, industry, and environmental groups.
This project aimed to:
The team used formative evaluation, a widely used evaluation approach that happens throughout the life of the projects, to assess how the project teams were coordinating their work, whether they were moving towards their intended goals, and if they were working effectively with research users. A key joint long-term goal was:
To contribute to better knowledge of the impacts of changes in water flows, and to better knowledge on governance, responsibilities, relationships and perceptions around water in the Fitzroy catchment. Research users perceive the knowledge created as credible, relevant, accessible and produced in an ethically sound manner. The four project teams promote, to research users, knowledge, skills, and tools to support the development of a better (scientifically credible and ethically sound) water allocation plan for the Fitzroy catchment and, more broadly, a better planning system in the catchment. Stakeholders, who are empowered through transdisciplinary research, can engage in enabling the water plan to be implemented and to deliver positive environmental, cultural, social and economic outcomes.
Figure 1. Four projects collaborated in a transdisciplinary approach in the Fitzroy River catchment, Western Australia. Each circle represents a project and the corresponding question it answered: 1. Environmental water needs, 2. Indigenous water needs, 3. Multi-objective planning, and 4. Showing and sharing knowledge. The central circle represents the issue of water management planning in the Fitzroy catchment, around which the projects collaborated using a transdisciplinary approach.
Figure 2. Simplified theory of change describing the pathways through which the research projects aim to achieve the long-term outcome of a credible water allocation plan, with fair allocations of water and a good regulatory framework. The outcomes below the dotted line can be influenced directly via research, while outcomes above the line include factors beyond the control of the research projects.
An evaluative approach was designed to support and assess transdisciplinary projects. This approach included:
The team identified different research impacts occurring because of people’s participation in, or access to the outputs of research:
Two projects (Environmental water needs, Indigenous water needs) have directly contributed to the Fitzroy catchment water allocation plan and to people’s submissions to the draft water plan consultation. The Multi-objective planning and Showing and sharing knowledge projects contributed with less tangible outcomes such as enhancing communication and strengthening relationships.
Researchers identified things that contributed positively to knowledge uptake by research users. For example, the use of videos and interactive maps, which can help users such as Traditional Owners to assimilate and use project information. They also identified things that hindered the use of project outcomes, such as confusion between the roles of research and government planning, and the limited capacity of some organisations to use research outputs.
Kiatkoski Kim M, Douglas MM, Pannell D, Setterfield SA, Hill R, Laborde S, Perrott L, Álvarez-Romero JG, Beesley L, Canham C and Brecknell A (2022) ‘When to use transdisciplinary approaches for environmental research’, Frontiers in Environmental Science, 10:840569, https://doi.org/10.3389/fenvs.2022.840569.
The Northern Australia Environmental Resources Hub addressed key research questions to come up with practical, on-ground solutions to some of the north’s most complex environmental challenges. A transdisciplinary research approach has been at the heart of the hub. Integrating key research users – policy-makers and land managers including Traditional Owners and ranger groups – into the co-design of research projects has led to rapid uptake of research outcomes into land management practices and decision-making. The hub has produced this wrap-up video outlining these impacts from the perspectives of research users.
Hill, R., Harkness, P., Raisbeck-Brown, N., Lyons, I., Álvarez‑Romero, J.G., Kiatkoski Kim, M., Chungalla, D., Wungundin, H., Aiken, M., Malay, J., Williams, B., Buissereth, R., Cranbell, T. Forrest, J., Hand, M., James, R., Jingle, E., Knight, O., Lennard, N., Lennard, V., Malay, I., Malay, L., Midmee, W., Morton, S., Nulgit, C., Riley, P., Shadforth, I., Bieundurry, J., Brooking, G., Brooking, S., Brumby, W., Bulmer, · V., Cherel, V., Clifton, A., Cox, S., Dawson, M., Gore‑Birch, C., Hill, J., Hobbs, A., Hobbs, D., Juboy, C., Juboy, P., Kogolo, A., Laborde, S., Lennard, B., Lennard, C., Lennard, D., Malay, N., Malay, Z., Marshall, D., Marshall, H., Millindee, L., Mowaljarlai, D., Myers, A., Nnarda, T., Nuggett, J., Nulgit, L., Nulgit, P., Poelina, A., Poudrill, D., Ross, J., Shandley, J., Skander, R., Skeen, S., Smith, G., Street, M., Thomas, P., Wongawol, B., Yungabun, H., Sunfly, A., Cook, C., Shaw, K., Collard, T. and Collard, Y. 2021. Learning Together for with the Martuwarra Fitzroy River. Sustainability Science. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-021-00988-x
The project was led by Professors Michael Douglas and David Pannell (University of Western Australia). For further information, contact Dr Milena Kiatkoski Kim.
This project was completed in September 2021.
Michael Douglas, The University of Western Australia
David Pannell, The University of Western Australia
Milena Kim, The University of Western Australia