The Interdisciplinary Advantage

The following was published by Toddi Steelman, executive director, in our Summer Term 2015 edition of Talking SENSe

Universities and their roles and missions are increasingly in the news. The time for universities functioning solely as ivory towers of thought removed from social responsibility has passed. This raises some interesting questions about how we in SENS serve the broader good and why we are motivated to do so.

How does SENS create value from the local to the global? What role are we playing to create science, and other types of knowledge, in the service of society?

The short answer is that we are an asset for economic development, a force for social equity and sustainability, and a trusted partner for communities, industry and non-profit organizations. Most recently, this is evident in the work of the Global Institute of Water Security and Jeff McDonnell’s MOST (Mine Overlay Site Testing) facility and how it will assist our understanding to improve mining reclamation. Helen Baulch has also undertaken research on detecting water quality problems at Buffalo Pound Lake which provides drinking water to the City of Regina. Markus Hecker and his colleagues in the Toxicology Centre are pioneering new ways to detect harmful environmental toxins that minimize testing on animals while improving accuracy of results. Maureen Reed is catalyzing work in Biosphere Reserves and Model Forests to demonstrate them as real models of economic, social and ecological sustainability in action.

Our students are also engaged in this kind of research.  Recent MES graduate Nils Lokken just completed his work on “Attitudes, Trust, and Wildlife Co-management in Igluligaarjuk, Qamani’tuaq, and Tikirarjuaq, Nunavut, Canada” which documented Inuit trust in the wildlife co-management system in an effort to increase understanding of Inuit goals in wildlife management.  Raea Gooding, another MES student, completed her work on denitrification in small reservoirs which contributed to developing innovative solutions to nutrient pollution in prairie landscapes.  MSEM student Leonid Akhov has been working with City of Saskatoon to prohibit “cosmetic” use of herbicides within the city limits while recommending alternative methods of pest control.

This work is hard. It is satisfying. It is not for everyone, but it matters. In SENS we have intentionally focused on a problem-oriented mission. We are affecting real people’s lives in many ways. We serve Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada and the world. How does your work make a difference?  

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The following was published by Toddi Steelman, executive director, in our Fall Term 2014 edition of Talking SENSe

SENS aims to be the premier site internationally for practicing problem-oriented, socially relevant interdisciplinary research concerning the environment and sustainability. But what does it mean to practice this kind of research and why is that important?

If we start with the premise that knowledge is power, then the question is what do we do with that power as faculty, students and staff that work in institutions of higher education—a quite privileged position in society relative to many others. With power comes responsibility. What is our responsibility? In short, it is to serve society by focusing on real problems faced by real people. How can we do that?

Interdisciplinary research at SENS seeks to integrate different disciplines when approaching, investigating and/or identifying potential solutions to the challenging environmental and sustainability problems we face. The premise is that problems emerge from a variety of causes, and we need to embrace that complexity with the relevant disciplines to address them. Interdisciplinarity can be practiced by a group or by an individual. Interdisciplinarity is different from multidisciplinarity, which brings to bear different disciplinary perspectives on a problem, but does not necessarily integrate them. Interdisciplinarity exists on a continuum from “weak”—where similar disciplines are integrated, like water quality modeling, geomorphology and watershed hydrology—to “strong” —where very dissimilar disciplines would work together, like water quality modeling, history, drama, anthrolopology and biogeochemistry. No one form is inherently better or worse than another, and each has their relative advantage and disadvantage for any given problem that is being addressed.

Within the School, we lead by example, where our core courses are instructed by two or more professors from different disciplines often using a problem-based approach. Arguably, the “soft skills” needed to practice interdisciplinarity are what make us special. Compassion and fostering genuine understanding are as important as the content we teach. Our instructors model behavior in how to communicate effectively across disciplinary cultures, illustrate how to question assumptions appropriately and respectfully, demonstrate that intellectual strength comes not from arrogance or superiority but the confidence of asking basic or elementary questions when you are outside your zone of comfort, and create the social architecture to enhance effective collaborative teams and the skills to work in those teams.

Our students engage in interdisciplinary research, often in collaboration with our faculty, community partners or clients on whose projects they work. Depending on the nature of the project, this can take us into realm of transdisciplinarity. Transdisciplinary occurs when we move beyond the boundaries of academia to work with community partners, industry, clients or others to define a problem, the approach and/or the potential pathways moving forward to address a specific problem.

None of this is easy. But we never promised it would be, because the problems we face are hard. If they could have been solved by other means, they would have been addressed by now.

So why does SENS take an interdisciplinary, and perhaps transdisciplinary, approach? Because we don’t have other feasible options at this time for addressing the environmental and sustainability problems faced by society. This doesn’t mean we will always be successful, but we can take faith in that we are all engaged in a grand experiment to serve society to the best of our ability. While we may not always end up practicing the interdisciplinary, problem-oriented ideal, our aim is high.