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Being Transdisciplinary in the Mountains

by David

In a ski resort village in the French Alps, about twenty researchers convened two weeks ago to discuss challenges and best practices in transdisciplinary mountain research. Transdis… what? Simply put, this term implies not just a joint effort of various academic disciplines to work together, as in interdisciplinary research, but also a close integration of non-academic stakeholders in all stages of a project – from defining research questions to interpreting results.

The participants, mostly professors or postdocs, had diverse backgrounds but had all worked on questions of environment, climate change, and sustainability in mountain regions. Mohammed Mahdi and I represented the High Atlas in Morocco. In intense plenary discussions, productive break-out groups, and over fine food and wine, everyone shared their ideas and insights (and sometimes wisdom). While each mountain environment has its specific characteristics, we found plenty of common ground across the sites. A field trip into the surrounding national park introduced us to local agricultural history, biodiversity, rock glaciers, and many aspects of the scientific work that is being carried out there.

Photo: C. Steger

My impression is that the ideal of transdisciplinary research is very laudable, but may often be difficult to implement due to constraints in the way researchers are funded and evaluated. This kind of approach requires many resources, the most crucial of which is time: time to talk to different stakeholders, build up trust, find a common language, be present, determine a research agenda together, carry out the fieldwork, communicate your findings, and start over again…

However, there are encouraging examples where such research has brought tremendous benefits to all actors involved.

During our workshop, different break-out groups started elaborating an academic paper, a generic stakeholder brief, and an educational module on transdisciplinary mountain research. In this context, one idea was to develop a mountain version of our NomadSed game – I would like to explore in the next few months how this could be done.

Determined to further promote this exchange, the Mountain Sentinels Network which had organized this workshop (and which we are affiliated with) is already planning a second one, scheduled for the fall of 2016. It will focus on participatory modeling and thus be very close to our core competences here at POLISES. Exciting times!

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