What have ESPA researchers learned? Feedback from our online survey

Charlie Dobson & Valeria Izzi
January 30, 2018

As the ESPA programme comes to a close, we have embarked on an effort to reflect on all that was learned during this journey, and to capture these lessons so that can be useful to current and future programmes, funders, researchers and partners. To do this, we reached out to the ESPA community through a combination of an online survey and key informants interviews. Thanks to all the ESPA researchers and partners who responded to the online survey.

Here, we’d like to share some of the key findings. The online survey remained open from August to December 2017, and was advertised to the ESPA community at large. It received a total of 38 responses, from 37 individual respondents (with one person giving two separate responses to cover two different projects). Nineteen ESPA projects were represented in total (with several projects being covered by multiple respondents), along with two responses from ESPA fellows. All the respondents bar one chose to provide their full details.

The majority of the respondents were in senior positions within the projects, with 16 principal investigators and 10 co-investigators. 21 respondents were based in institutions in the UK, 6 elsewhere in the Global North, and 9 in the Global South.

Perhaps surprisingly for a programme like ESPA, when asked about their disciplinary affiliation only a minority of respondents (7) identified themselves as ‘natural scientists’. 8 identified themselves as social scientists, while the overarching majority (18) identified themselves as a hybrid between the two, not fitting neatly into either category.

Summary of key findings - Interdisciplinarity

Almost 2/3 of respondents identified their project as interdisciplinary, choosing, among the proposed options, the one indicating the strongest degree of integration among disciplines (“in our project, researchers from different disciplines worked together to integrate knowledge and methods and using a synthesis approach to address a common problem”). Respondents strongly recognised the benefits of interdisciplinarity, both for the project as a whole and for themselves as researchers. They were generally very supportive of the claim of interdisciplinarity leading to ‘better quality research’ (with 58% ‘agreeing’ or ‘strongly agreeing’) and ‘greater development impact’ (with 80% ‘agreeing’ or ‘strongly agreeing’).

Asked about the benefits of interdisciplinarity that they had directly experienced, respondents also gave a positive response. The most experienced benefits were diversified professional networks (80%), joint authorship of articles (83%), utilisation of methods and techniques from other disciplines (69%), continuing dialogue with individuals in other disciplines (74%), expertise gained in facilitating interdisciplinary collaborations (63%) and changed views on how to frame a research problem (60%).

These positive experiences of learning and network building suggest that ESPA has been successful in helping to build and consolidate capacity to carry out interdisciplinary research in ecosystem services research. However, in addition to all the positivity reported above, some respondents questioned the idea of interdisciplinarity being necessarily good in itself, and emphasised the need of being discerning on when to use interdisciplinarity and how to balance benefits against costs. Respondents pointed to a number of challenges and risks of interdisciplinarity, although views were very mixed on the statement that ‘the challenges of interdisciplinarity may in some cases offset its benefits’, as shown in the figure below.

The challenges of interdisciplinarity were widely experienced by respondents. Respondents declared to have personally experienced the challenge of different mindsets among natural and social scientists (77%), communication difficulties (63%), difficulty in publishing interdisciplinary papers in prestigious journals (50%), and difficulty in obtaining funding for interdisciplinary research (37%).

Key principles

Finally, in their open-ended answers respondents advanced recommendations to overcome the challenges and reap the benefits of interdisciplinary research:

  • Be open-minded. Respondents stressed the need for respect, trust and open-mindedness to overcome inevitable differences in mindsets. To foster these attitudes it was repeatedly advised that good communication becomes essential. For example, regular workshops, provided that all are present and entirely focused on the project, were seen as helpful to build trust and develop learning about different disciplines. Another recommendation was, if possible and appropriate, to work with researchers that you already have a good working relationship and understanding with. The core message is that the “soft” elements of research project management -- good communication and good working relationships – are particularly essential in interdisciplinary projects. “Communicate, communicate, and try again – not least, laugh and have fun doing research”.
  • Be realistic. It was recommended to temper the ambition and excitement of interdisciplinary research with a realistic attitude to what can be achieved. One respondent highlighted the danger of developing unwieldy methods that try to meet all the standards and desires of each discipline: spending a lot of time planning and negotiating at the beginning of the process can help avoid this.
  • Learn from the experiences of others. One respondent made an interesting recommendation that project leaders should be mentored by experienced interdisciplinary researchers to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.



Image: credit CIFOR