To solve the many challenges facing the Kingdom of Eswatini, effective collaboration between researchers from different disciplines is necessary to maximise the potential benefits of  interdisciplinary science for integrative solutions.

This is one of the key reasons the Swaziland Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre (SEPARC) and Royal Science and Technology Park (RSTP, in collaboration with the University of Arkansas (USA), last week hosted a workshop on ‘Interdisciplinary Science, Economic Development, and Sustainability in Swaziland’ to build the capacity of researchers in the public and private sectors.

The two-day interactive workshop covered a diverse range of topics focused on key issues in interdisciplinary research and economic development, with particular emphasis on sustainability collaborations in Swaziland and beyond.

SEPARC Executive Director Dr Thula Sizwe Dlamini said the workshop was meant to help Eswatini organisations and individual researchers see how they can pool together research and development resources to come up with stronger solutions so as to operationalise some of the things the country is doing to grow the economy.

“We have partnered with RSTP and the University of Arkansas to develop national capacity in the area of conducting research. There is very limited research in Swaziland, we need to start engaging in more research so that we can start to realise economic growth and development. We need new products in our economy and these are not going to drop from the sky; the economy of the future is in laboratories, if we need to understand what the economy of the future will look like, we need to conduct research,” he said.

Workshop Facilitator, Dr Aaron Shew from the University of Arkansas, noted that disciplinary training (and science) focuses on acquiring particular epistemic approaches to solving a problem. He said all of these are useful in their own way, however, broad differences occur between social, natural, and engineering sciences.

“Cultures develop within disciplines, in terms of methods, data, values, motivations, and uncertainty. Therefore, team science is collaborative, often employing cross-disciplinary approaches to research on a particular topic. Cross-disciplinary science involves perspectives from two or more disciplines, it includes multi-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and trans-disciplinary science,” he said.

Dr Shew explained that multi-disciplinary science combines disciplinary theories, methods, and perspectives to investigate different components of a scientific problem without explicit integration/synthesis, while trans-disciplinary science is integration that extends connections between perspectives to generate new concepts and frameworks, leading to an independent area of knowledge or expertise.

He defined inter-disciplinary science as “a mode of research by teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialised knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice” (NSF).

Research is an evolving process that moves from disciplinary to multi-disciplinary to interdisciplinary. Research shows that this is an incredibly difficult process, particularly the move from multi-to interdisciplinary work (see for example Vincent et al. 2015, Roy et al. 2013).

Dr Shew noted that interdisciplinary science comes with a number of challenges as it requires working in a team comprising a collection of diverse people from different disciplines. He said in interdisciplinary science “we focus our efforts on creating environments where individuals can easily express their ignorance of other disciplines. We use processes and activities that enable people to more easily learn from one another to capitalise on diverse perspectives and expertise. We propose methods and tools for deep knowledge integration to aid interdisciplinary problem solving”.

However, he also noted that there are a number of challenges that come up when diverse people collaborate. For instance, he noted that solutions depend on how the problem is framed and vice versa; that is, the problem definition depends on the solution, and yet stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem.

In addition, there are issues of constraints and resources, which can change over time; path dependency in planning, which can lead to loss of liberty and equity considerations with respect to efficiency. There could also be professional, academic, and social/political components that influence the way people in a team work.

“In interdisciplinary science, we have to take into consideration intra-personal issues and that no personality is bad as people are different, which has its pros and cons. Inter-personal is when people start sharing and issues of communication and discipline come into play because we come from different backgrounds and therefore have different assumptions about things, we have different methods that we want to carry out,” Dr Shew explained.

“Other things that can make it challenging though are institutions. Institutional culture and certain policies that exist within an institution may prevent you from working more effectively in teams. If you have too strong of a hierarchy maybe some people never get to share their ideas and if you have too loose of a hierarchy, with no leadership effectively and everybody gets to share ideas but you get brainstorming without action.

“So basically there are various cultures created within an institution. There are physical and environmental issues, for instance, if your team is spread across the world that’s a physical barrier as it’s difficult to work through email, it’s difficult to collaborate through skype, especially if there are complex human environmental problems. Technical problems are also a barrier; just because we have a chemist on the team does not mean they have all the tools to address a chemical problem, just like if we have economic data does not mean we have the right economic model to meet the team’s needs.

“There also socio-political barriers; there may be certain social and cultural things that are unique to people from Eswatini, and if we work together some of those things may change or alter the way we do things, which could be highly beneficial but it can also be very challenging. Also, the type of policies and legal system that exist in a country may limit or enhance our ability to conduct interdisciplinary research.”

Dr Shew said interdisciplinary science requires deep knowledge integration; “even if we can all work together in a diverse team and maybe we can understand each other at surface level, when we get to the methodological level, at the project and implementation level, the knowledge that is required to actually apply what our team project is and goals are, it becomes very difficult as we are at the surface level, which is not bad, it’s a step but it’s very difficult to go deeper without that knowledge integration.

“Interdisciplinary science requires iteration around a process or problem, that’s what helps create deep knowledge integration. You all learn from each other by doing this process, you come up with your own ideas, combine these with others’ ideas, then you learn together and you have a deep knowledge of the process or problem. These are the types of things that contribute to successful teams.”

The Workshop

During the interactive workshop, Dr Shew of the University of Arkansas trained 28 researchers ranging from Bachelor’s level to PhD level. The attendants came from the University of Swaziland’s Research Centre, Government of Eswatini (Ministry of Natural Resources – Energy department, Ministry of Economic Planning and Development, Central Statistical Office, Department of Agricultural Research and Special Services), Swaziland Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (SPTC), Swazi MTN, Swaziland Christian University, Southern Africa Nazarene University, NRG Biomass Swaziland, Royal Science and Technology Park, and SEPARC.

Participants were placed in groups with members from a mixture of diverse disciplines, then they were tasked with coming up with ways to think through a case study addressing a drought in Southern Africa. The groups were required to assess the problem (drought), identify the stakeholders affected, what is causing the problem, the environmental issues, social systems, engineering, and policy problems that have to be modelled, to come up with what Dr Shew termed a messy model, which is where it all starts before members of a team can work to together to come up with a cohesive model that addresses the problem (in this case, drought).