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Unpacking transdisciplinary research (the REALLY hard science)


Minoan bronze figure from Crete of an acrobat jumping over a bull (image reproduced on Labyrinthos Potnia website).

The following excerpt is the beginning of a candid and thoughtful article by Ian Scoones, of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), at Sussex University, about an international symposium, One Health for the Real World: zoonoses, ecosystems and wellbeing, that took place at the Zoological Society of London last week (17–18 Mar 2016). Co-organized by the Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa Consortium (DDDAC) and the Zoological Society of London with support from the Royal Society, this symposium brought together leading experts from different fields to discuss ‘healthy ecosystems, healthy people’.

The Africa-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) was one of 20 partner organizations in the 4-year consortium project, which closed following the symposium event. Two ILRI veterinary epidemiologists, Bernard Bett and Delia Grace, were members of the consortium. More will be posted soon on the ILRI News blog about the inputs of Bett and Grace in this One Health symposium. In the meantime, interested readers may want to view an earlier popular overview of zoonoses given by Delia Grace (it’s been viewed 15,315 times to date), Zoonoses: The lethal gifts of livestock (Oct 2012), or two more recent presentations by Bernard Bett, Climate change and animal health (Nov 2015) and Healthy people, animals and ecosystems: The role of CGIAR research (Mar 2015).

Here’s how Scoones begins his blog article.

‘I spent much of last week at London zoo. It was the final conference of a project I have been involved in over the past four years on zoonoses, ecosystems and wellbeing in Africa. The conference highlighted the idea of ‘One Health’, a movement aimed at linking human, livestock and ecosystem health. The focus was on how to make this happen in the ‘real world’, so that both emerging and endemic zoonotic diseases can be tackled effectively.

‘Over the last few years, influenza, Ebola and now Zika have struck in different parts of the world, often with devastating consequences. The argument of those at the conference—and indeed of our project, the Dynamic Drivers or Disease in Africa Consortium (DDDAC)—was that better integration, and more interdisciplinary collaboration will make a big difference to the effectiveness of responses to disease, and focus on ecosystems, poverty and wellbeing need to be central.

‘There was certainly a great buzz at the conference, and beyond (#OneHealth2016 was one of the top trending topics on Twitter in the UK on the opening day!). We had some very high level speakers, from the head of the Wellcome Trust, Jeremy Farrar, to the Chief Scientist at the UK’s Department for International Development, Charlotte Watts, as well as excellent participation from a range of stellar researchers and students working on One Health issues.

‘One of the recurrent themes was that making a ‘One Health’ approach, rooted in interdisciplinary science, is really tough. And perhaps even more so, when we move to a transdisciplinary approach, working with practitioners and policy makers to ‘co-construct’ knowledge and action.

‘There is a lot of talk of inter- and transdisciplinary research these days. Everyone wants cutting edge research that makes a difference. So whether it’s the Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, the European Commission’s Horizon 2020programme, or the new UK research council strategy, or umbrella programmes such as Future Earth, all want such problem focused research to tackle the big global issues of our time. And the themes of our conference, and our project, linking environmental change with disease with policy impacts certainly fit into this category.

‘Our project was supported by the UK Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation Programme, funded by DFID, the UK Natural Environmental Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council, and was hosted by the ESRC STEPS Centre based at Sussex University. It involved five countries in Africa (Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Ghana), four diseases (trypanosomiasis, Rift Valley Fever, Lassa Fever and Henipah). Each country study was focused on a puzzle, focusing on how diseases emerge, get transmitted, and who they affect different groups of people. The overall Consortium involved 19 institutions, ranging from diverse research groups in multiple universities in Africa, Europe and the US to veterinary, public health and wildlife departments in Africa. At last count there were more than 50 researchers involved in various ways. It was massively ambitious, and premised on a commitment to transdisciplinary working. . . .’

Read the whole article by Iain Scoones: Research collaboration for global challenges: why it’s really hard, in his Zimbabweland Blog, 21 Mar 2016.

View an earlier popular presentation by Delia Grace (it’s been viewed 15,315 times to date): Zoonoses: The lethal gifts of livestock, Oct 2012.

View two more recent presentation by Bernard Bett: Climate change and animal health, Nov 2015, and Healthy people, animals and ecosystems: The role of CGIAR research, Mar 2015.

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