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What does transdisciplinary research mean for early career scientists in Future Earth?

What does it mean for early career scientists to do transdisciplinary research within the context of Future Earth? Young researchers of the German Network of Early Career Scientists in Future Earth recently met to discuss the theoretical and methodological implications of this question – as well its relevance for career options and potential joint projects – at their first ever annual meeting. This 2-day event was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and organised by the German Network of Early Career Scientists in Future Earth, and hosted by the Junior Research Group “Ethics of Science in the Research for Sustainable Development” at the International Centre for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities of the University of Tuebingen.

The Early Career Scientists network is still a fledgling one: its inaugural meeting took place during the German Future Earth Summit in Berlin in January 2014. It attracted doctoral candidates, post-doctoral researchers, heads of junior research groups and junior professors, all wanting to establish an informal exchange within Future Earth. The participants formulated the need for an in-depth exchange about the methodological challenges posed by Future Earth and its ambitious research plan, as well as for further networking. The first annual workshop of the network responded to those needs. It particularly aimed to facilitate a dialogue about transdisciplinary methods that can be applied in the projects of young researchers and intensify collaborations within the network.

Opening the meeting, Dr Bettina Schmalzbauer, Head of the German Future Earth Secretariat, presented the latest developments in establishing and implementing Future Earth worldwide and recent activities of the German Future Earth Committee. Participants then split into working groups to critically and constructively discuss the Strategic Research Agenda 2014, their general impressions on the publication, its relevance for transdisciplinary research and the role of early career scientists. The document aims to support solution-oriented research by integrating stakeholders in co-design and co-production processes. By this, it is hoped that research and innovation will more closely address social needs and create more robust knowledge.

In addition, the Future Earth research agenda explicitly encourages and supports young scientists in developing their transdisciplinary careers. As was seen at the 2014 Berlin meeting, transdisciplinary research responds to the aims of early career scientists – they want to expand those research methods that allow co-designing and co-producing knowledge in different social, cultural and geographical contexts, and that contribute to the Future Earth agenda. For this group of early career scientists, integrating these methods into their research at an early stage and expanding the toolbox of transdisciplinary methods are primary goals. At the same time, participants noted that interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research might be in conflict with the requirements of traditional career planning.

Participants welcomed the agenda’s openness, which allows many researchers to connect to Future Earth. However they criticised the lack of explicit discussion of critical political issues such as power and democracy, and felt the document fails to reflect the theoretical as well as the methodological implications of the transdisciplinary research it calls for.

While generally agreeing with the idea of transdisciplinary research, participants highlighted tensions between the ideals of transdisciplinarity and the existing rewards in academia – at least in Germany, where the appointment procedure for professorships or for publication in peer-reviewed journals has a disciplinary focus. The early career scientists attending had the chance to discuss using current DFG funding schemes to do transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary research with Dr Johannes Karte of DFG. Despite claims to the contrary, he maintained that DFG decision-making structures are fit for the specific needs of transdisciplinarity, and presented potential funding schemes for transdisciplinary projects. However, he conceded that finding appropriate reviewers is a constant challenge for DFG.

Discussions on the second day focussed on approaches and methods in transdisciplinary research. Together with Dr Daniela Gottschlich (Humboldt University of Berlin) and Professor Martina Padmanabhan (University of Passau), participants exchanged views on successful and failed approaches and methods, challenges and impediments of transdisciplinary research. They agreed that there is not one transdisciplinarity-approach but many different research approaches. In order to advance scholarly exchange on methodology and methods, more platforms that allow for dialogue on successful – as well as failed – projects are needed.

Finally, the workshop participants identified two main topics that researchers within the German Network of Early Career Scientists want to collaborate on more intensely: methodologies of transdisciplinarity, and water-related research issues. These two groups will prepare platforms for joint projects on the topics and connect with early career scientists that were not able to participate in the Tuebingen meeting. A steering committee was selected to coordinate the future activities of the network. The next annual meeting will be held back-to-back with the German Future Earth Summit in January 2016.

The first annual meeting of the German Network of Early Career Scientists in Future Earth was a great success. It engaged young researchers in a debate on methodology and methods of transdisciplinary research. Subsequent meetings on this issue were welcomed. It also broadened the network’s membership and deepened its collaboration. The agenda of German Early Career Scientists in Future Earth is taking shape…

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