Fostering interdisciplinarity in sustainable development

On 15 October 2014, we had a fascinating talk from Prof. Wendy Gibson from the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences launching the University’s ‘Sustainable Development and Poverty Reduction: Capacity Building in the face of Environmental Uncertainty’ network.

The Cabot Institute is supporting a number of ventures to foster an interdisciplinary network of academics across the University, whose work can be included under the broad ‘development studies’/’international development’ umbrella, due to its direct or indirect impact on sustainable development and poverty reduction in the Global South.

Uniquely, at Bristol, this includes academics working in the social sciences, but also in Physical Geography, Earth Sciences, Public Health, Engineering, Biological and Veterinary Sciences, to name but a few.  This ‘International Development Discussion Forum’ will have a regular monthly slot and it is therefore hoped that participants will come regularly, not because they may be specialists in the topic of that month’s presentation, but in order to hear the kinds of questions that parasitologists, or engineers, or lawyers, for example, raise for development research; questions that they can, in turn, contribute to from their own discipline.

Coping with parasitic diseases in Africa


Trypanosomes in human blood.
Credit: University of Bristol

The topic of Wendy’s talk was the extensive research she has undertaken as a parasitologist on the tsetse fly as a vector for trypanosomes, parasites which cause African sleeping sickness, or HAT – Human African Trypanosomiasis.  In light of the global media coverage of the Ebola outbreak, Wendy’s measured reminder about the ongoing impact of a lower profile disease such as HAT, on people and animals in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa, was sobering.  Not only does the disease have a devastating impact on affected communities, but diagnosis and the treatment of the disease are extremely unpleasant and involve protracted intervention.  In situations in which people are coping with a range of daily hardships that impact upon their livelihoods, including drought, poor forage and a range of different diseases affecting human and animal populations, disease-focused approaches often fail to recognise this reality.

Interdisciplinary challenges in rural healthcare

After the talk, participants were asked to focus on three specific challenges identified by Wendy:

  1. How to maintain momentum in control programs as we move towards disease eradication.
  2. How to prioritise disease risks with a finite health budget.
  3. How to get different government departments to co-operate on shared goals.

Given that the subject clearly raised so many issues relating to the challenges of public health care in sub-Saharan Africa – including issues relating to rural (as opposed to urban) poverty, governance and the state, aid and non-governmental organisations – discussions were wide-ranging.  Rather than proffering standard academic critique of the material presented, participants were asked to focus on what they, positioned as they are within their own discipline, could bring to the table.  Consequently, it was fascinating how different tables touched upon similar issues but nevertheless raised specific insights depending on the differing make-up of the tables and the expertise included on them.

Specific challenges identified included:

  •  ongoing problems with top-down interventions,
  • the forging of rural (and regional) networks,
  • the difficulties in specifying the costs of such a disease,
  • raising the profile of a such a low-profile disease when its symptoms may take some years to become manifest, and
  • the difficulties of co-ordinating NGOs, aid, and governments in relation to healthcare priorities, particularly when healthcare demands are seen to ‘compete’ with each other.

And discussions continued into the networking drinks as participants identified a number of practical and funding obstacles in undertaking the kind of real interdisciplinary research that could be of such value in responding to some of the challenges relating to a disease such as African sleeping sickness.

Quotes from participants

“I knew that some of my research might be usefully applied in developing countries, but the complex challenges and the feeling that I lack a track record in ‘development research’ put me off. Through the forum I am learning about that world, and it has been a real eye-opener. I had no idea that so much was going on across the University in this area, nor that my naivety would be treated so generously in the friendly and open discussions that we’ve had so far.”
Dr. Eric Morgan, Veterinary Parasitology and Ecology

“As a scientist I want my work to be “useful”. However, translating knowledge into effective and successful, practical outcomes takes more than just generation of that scientific knowledge. This is being increasingly recognised by funders, many of whom now have a focus on interdisciplinarity, particularly for delivering outcomes that can make a difference to people living in developing countries (e.g. the Newton Fund, but also some Research Council funding calls).  While the topic of this workshop was not within my scientific field, it was fascinating, and gave me insight into the realities and difficulties of implementing change that really does require the bringing together of many different aspects of knowledge.  I met some colleagues that would be great to collaborate with in the future in order to better deliver effective outcomes.”

Dr. Jo House, Geographical Sciences

Future discussion

On 11 November 2014, the Cabot Institute will be supporting the next discussion forum in this series in which Prof. Thorsten Wagener will be giving a talk on his ongoing work in the field of sustainable water management.  His research focuses on a systems approach, which he argues is needed to adequately understand this dynamic physical and socio-economic system with the goal to provide water security for people and nature.

This blog has been written by Dr Elizabeth Fortin, Cabot Institute, University of Bristol Law School.

2nd Generation biofuels: a transdisciplinary dialogue

“Globally, there are politically important evidence gaps, but nationally, those evidence gaps are just not important enough for policy-makers to take account of them”.  
This was one comment summing up the discussion I had at a workshop on the development of 2nd generation, or cellulosic, biofuels (biofuels produced from crops or waste, that is not otherwise used as food).  The workshop’s aim was to produce ‘A transdisciplinary dialogue on the opportunities and challenges of cellulosic ethanol in the UK’, and was run by Dr. Kate Millar, the Director of the Centre for Applied Bioethics.  It was part of a number of events convened for the EU Framework 7 project, “Integrated EST-Framework” (EST-Frame).  Bringing together 12 scientists, engineers, environmental scientists and social scientists is not an easy feat, but the 24 hours’ of the workshop produced some extremely interesting discussions.
My own research considers endeavours to overcome some of the sustainability problems commonly associated with 1st generation biofuels (e.g. sugarcane and wheat), and so I was particularly interested in how the development of 2nd generation biofuels might change the sustainability landscape. Would many of the problems associated with biofuels in general – increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions when compared with fossil fuels, land grabbing, food insecurity and biodiversity loss – disappear if we were to start producing 2nd generation biofuels? 

Policy problems 

Oilseed rape grown for  1st
generation biofuel has limitations.
Image credit: Richard Webb
Much of the first day of the workshop was spent discussing ‘policy problems’ that would need to be overcome for the successful production of cellulosic biofuel for consumption in the UK. 2nd generation biofuels have not been viably commercialised to date largely because of the cost of production.  But this is not the only policy problem to be overcome.  2nd generation biofuel will not only come from ‘waste’, but also from crops, such as miscanthus, which are specifically grown as biofuel feedstock.  But policies to encourage the use of crop residues for biofuels, depend, first, upon the categorisation of the cellulose left behind in the farming of particular crops as ‘waste’ and, second, upon a decision that the ‘best’ use of that waste is its conversion to energy.  This decision may, in turn, depend upon an assumption relating to national energy security.
When discussing the problems that would need to be overcome for the production of 2nd generation biofuel, it soon became clear that our own understanding of the problems depended upon the frames through which they were envisioned, and/or the assumptions that might be made in even categorising them as problems in the first place. Such frames and assumptions need to be unpicked when making policy decisions relating to, for example, the ‘best’ use of land, the ‘best’ conversion processes, displacement effects resulting from the adoption of those policies, and the valuations made in assessing ‘costs’ resulting from the production of such biofuels.

Indirect land use change (ILUC)

One thorny issue relating to biofuels production has been that of ILUC.  ILUC has been a huge spoke in the wheel of policy-makers’ development of policy in relation to the development of biofuels, not only in the UK, but in the EU, and further afield.  Endeavouring to tackle this issue involves identifying potential knock-on effects resulting from direct land use change to biofuels feedstocks (whether 1st or 2nd generation). These might include increased GHG emissions, erosion, biodiversity loss, or increased insecurity in relation to land rights or food supply of local people.  
While the focus of policy-makers’ concerns in relation to ILUC has to date been GHG emissions, views in relation to all of these issues also depend upon one’s assumptions/framing.  Furthermore, such issues are by their very definition uncertain (because they involve future potential scenarios) and, in tackling each of them, require policy-makers to give value (either positive or negative value) to those potential scenarios.  Some of the values endowed by policy-makers in assessing indirect or direct land use change may be quantifiable.  Others, such as the values given by local people to their landscape before it is transformed for biofuel feedstocks, may not be.  Moreover, land use change resulting from policies made in the UK, may be taking place in countries as far afield as Africa or South East Asia, for example.  
While some participants thought that this demonstrated that even endeavouring to tackle an issue such as ILUC was purely altruistic, and therefore usually not important enough for national policy-makers to be swayed by, others argued that it was not altruism that demanded its recognition, but an appreciation of the integrated nature of our world, its people and environment, and markets for feedstocks.  Without actively sympathising with policy-makers, many participants recognised that there are no right answers when it comes to ILUC.

Need for a holistic approach in policy-making

Image by Steve Jurvetson
When discussion moved on to consider the types of evidence required for policy-makers to tackle the policy problems, we soon realised that different forms of ‘evidence’ were often integrated.  Moreover, it was not lack of evidence that was the problem for policy-makers, or even ambiguity and uncertainty in the evidence, but the appraisal of that evidence.  This requires political decisions to be taken, something that policy-makers seem, ironically, to be distinctly uncomfortable with in relation to this area.
The workshop was a valuable exercise.  To paraphrase one participant: many of the technical or economic issues relating to the development of cellulosic biofuels in the UK could be resolved by taking a very narrow view of the problem.  However, such issues do encompass wider issues.  Countering the scientists’ and engineers’ ‘problem-solving’ approaches to policy issues, with social scientists’ more critical understanding of the social issues surrounding the problems is always going to be a challenge, but one that, I believe, is crucial if those problems are really going to be solved with any success.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Elizabeth Fortin, University of Bristol Law School.