Transdisciplinarity in AIMES

AIMES contribution to enhance transdisciplinarity in GEC research

Current Earth System Science is insufficiently holistic for the challenges of today.  While the environment and societal dynamics have been co-evolving together over millennia, relatively little scholarship has explored this. Indeed the environmental and the societal domain have until recently been seen as separable for the purposes of most research.  Scale, which is the first topic the IGBP explored (Rosswall et al 1988), remains a fundamental challenge.  Most of our understanding is gained at one, two or at most three scales in time and/or space, and we lack the knowledge to define the time/space scales at which human and natural systems interact strongly or weakly.

The Complex Adaptive Systems approach, fundamental for understanding the dynamics in the GESS, has been applied patchily. AIMES will necessarily adopt a Complex Adaptive Systems perspective that crosses sectors, scales and disciplines. AIMES will work to develop an intellectual framework in which human-natural systems interactions are intrinsically coupled.  McGlade argues (1995): “There is no natural (sub) system, there is no social (sub) system, there are only interactions in an integrated system”.

The AIMES approach

Reflecting on GAIM and AIMES since 1990 when work began, these integrative core projects have cultivated an increasingly post-disciplinary community of scholarship.  When GAIM began, the group had to bridge seemingly vast differences in perspective, scale, culture, and tools, between the earth and life sciences.  The communities that came together approached processes at different time scales, over different spatial extents from organisms to the globe, and had different observational resources to draw on.  As AIMES began, it faced similar challenges integrating the social sciences and humanities, even to the extent of referring to “scholarship” rather than “science” in its activities.  Many paradigms exist through which the disciplines collaborate, sometimes referred to interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary:

  • Interdisciplinary: of or relating to more than one branch of knowledge;
  • Multidisciplinary: drawing appropriately from multiple disciplines to redefine problems outside of normal boundaries and reach solutions based on a new understanding of complex situations;
  • Transdisciplinary: a research strategy that crosses many disciplinary boundaries to create a holistic approach.

AIMES has taken a problem-oriented approach, focusing on topics such as the relationship between future fossil emissions (a human process), atmospheric concentrations (dependent on physics and biology) and climate (largely physics); and the impact of climate variability on societal development (paleoclimate, archaeology, history -all collaborating to understand governance).  Disciplinary knowledge was central and crucial in these studies, but operationally, the AIMES groups often found the trappings of the discipline, their culture, assumptions and priorities, to be a hindrance to open discussion, leading to misunderstandings as a result of unstated assumptions. However, with commitment and goodwill, these issues diminished in importance and the AIMES groups learned to “check their disciplines at the door”, bring their knowledge, world-views and perspectives, but be very clear about assumptions and presumptions associated with those perspectives.

The AIMES approach has elements captured in all three of the definitions above and we refer, only partly in jest, to it as post-disciplinary, referring more to the need to study the world as a whole, while being very aware of the cultural aspects of the disciplines we all train within.  As the world changes, the socio-environmental problems that must be addressed in the transition to sustainability diverge increasingly from the knowledge paradigms of academia and require individuals and teams that can integrate knowledge across disciplines, time and space scales to address the multi-scaled environmental challenges of the next century.

Integrated Modelling of Human and Environmental Systems