Transdisciplinary research for water management

Transdisciplinary research aims to provide solutions to socially relevant problems. This often requires collaboration between researchers from multiple disciplines – for example, from the social and natural sciences. Transdisciplinary research also involves collaboration between researchers and research users, enabling mutual learning between all participants. These two elements (interdisciplinary and participatory research) can increase the likelihood of the knowledge produced being relevant and usable, and taken up by research users to address real-world sustainability challenges. However, some questions remain unanswered. What are the impacts of transdisciplinary research? Does it really create more useful knowledge? And does the extra investment translate into real-world benefits?

This project:

  • evaluated the use of a transdisciplinary research approach in Western Australia’s Martuwarra (Fitzroy River) catchment
  • contributed to water management in the Fitzroy catchment by facilitating co-production and integration of knowledge generated by four research projects
  • contributed to addressing complex sustainability issues in northern Australia and beyond by designing an evaluation framework that can be used in future research.

Project outputs

  • an evaluative approach that can be used by researchers and funders in assessing the impacts of transdisciplinary research
  • a scientific publication identifying circumstances under which the additional benefits of transdisciplinary research are sufficient to outweigh the additional costs associated with this research mode
  • a report with recommendations to support decisions about when and how to use a transdisciplinary approach in research, and on the evaluation of transdisciplinary research projects.

Four hub projects in the Fitzroy catchment worked together to create knowledge around water resource management (Figure 1). These four projects integrated interdisciplinary and cross-cultural perspectives. This Transdisciplinary environmental research project facilitated these four projects (Figure 1) to work together in a transdisciplinary approach that included collaborating closely with research users such as governments, Traditional Owners, industry, and environmental groups.

This project aimed to:

  • contribute to the design of strategies that enhance the transdisciplinarity of the four Fitzroy catchment projects, increasing the potential uptake of research outputs in decision-making
  • identify lessons that can inform the design, implementation, and evaluation of future transdisciplinary environmental research.

The team used formative evaluation, a widely used evaluation approach that happens throughout the life of the projects, to assess how the project teams were coordinating their work, whether they were moving towards their intended goals, and if they were working effectively with research users. A key joint long-term goal was:

To contribute to better knowledge of the impacts of changes in water flows, and to better knowledge on governance, responsibilities, relationships and perceptions around water in the Fitzroy catchment. Research users perceive the knowledge created as credible, relevant, accessible and produced in an ethically sound manner. The four project teams promote, to research users, knowledge, skills, and tools to support the development of a better (scientifically credible and ethically sound) water allocation plan for the Fitzroy catchment and, more broadly, a better planning system in the catchment. Stakeholders, who are empowered through transdisciplinary research, can engage in enabling the water plan to be implemented and to deliver positive environmental, cultural, social and economic outcomes.

Fitzroy River catchment goals

Figure 1. Four projects collaborated in a transdisciplinary approach in the Fitzroy River catchment, Western Australia. Each circle represents a project and the corresponding question it answered: 1. Environmental water needs, 2. Indigenous water needs, 3. Multi-objective planning, and 4. Showing and sharing knowledge. The central circle represents the issue of water management planning in the Fitzroy catchment, around which the projects collaborated using a transdisciplinary approach.

  • Formative evaluation requires resources and commitment by the research team. It also requires flexibility from the funders and researchers to accommodate changes in response to evaluation. Nonetheless, it can be very useful in transdisciplinary projects that require an ongoing adaptation to a changing context. Such adaptation, linked to the ‘outcomes-focused’ feature of transdisciplinarity, can lead to a higher likelihood of high-impact research.
  • Developing a theory of change can help a transdisciplinary project team (including non-academic partners) to refine research goals, identify research users, capture the project’s pathway to impact, and develop evaluative questions.
  • The output of a theory of change (Figure 2) helps to ensure that project outcomes are realistic with respect to what is within the sphere of influence of the researchers. It can also be used to guide the development and adaptation of project activities, especially in complex and changing contexts, so they maintain the focus on intended outcomes.
  • The output of a theory of change (Figure 2) can be a powerful communication tool to explain the project pathway to impact to research participants.
  • A structured or systematic literature review can strengthen the academic contributions of a project by better situating it in relation to a body of knowledge, thus facilitating communication within a transdisciplinary team (i.e. all team members become familiar with the lens used to analyse the research problem).
  • A literature review can also inform researchers of the evaluation practices in that specific field of research.
  • Many transdisciplinary projects rely on self-reflection only during the formative and, at times, summative evaluation stages. However useful a reflective process may be, it is often best complemented by the perspectives of research users. In our experience, the (at times surprising) comments and suggestions provided by research users during the interviews justified the additional costs and time of conducting such interviews. This information can be invaluable in responding to research users and strengthening the ‘participatory’ feature of transdisciplinary research.

Figure 2. Simplified theory of change describing the pathways through which the research projects aim to achieve the long-term outcome of a credible water allocation plan, with fair allocations of water and a good regulatory framework. The outcomes below the dotted line can be influenced directly via research, while outcomes above the line include factors beyond the control of the research projects.

An evaluative approach was designed to support and assess transdisciplinary projects. This approach included:

  • Developing the theory of change identifying the goals that the four projects wanted to jointly achieve, the rationale between project activities and the achievement of such goals (Figure 2), and research evaluation questions to guide data collection Projects have adjusted some activities in response to this process.
  • Reviewing the literature, which contributed to a better understanding by team members of the ‘transdisciplinarity’ concept, its advantages and limitations in relation to alternative research modes, the wider body of transdisciplinary literature associated with water management, and the evaluative approaches used in transdisciplinary water studies. These understandings contributed directly to the design of this project’s evaluation method and research outputs, as well as the enhancement of transdisciplinary research features in individual projects.
  • Interviewing research users to check whether the projects were reaching towards their common goals. The preliminary results of the interviews supported discussions on the strengths and weaknesses of the projects’ collaboration, the factors affecting research users’ perceptions of the research, and adapting the projects’ outreach to strengthen research outcomes.

The team identified different research impacts occurring because of people’s participation in, or access to the outputs of research:

  • learning and increased understanding of scientific information
  • development of new skills or social learning (i.e. learning from working together with other stakeholders)
  • empowerment (e.g. meeting and deliberating with peers regarding collective action because of the projects)
  • enhancing communication with other groups and a better understanding of their perspectives
  • creating new contacts (e.g. meeting new people) and strengthening existing relationships.

Two projects (Environmental water needs, Indigenous water needs) have directly contributed to the Fitzroy catchment water allocation plan and to people’s submissions to the draft water plan consultation. The Multi-objective planning and Showing and sharing knowledge projects contributed with less tangible outcomes such as enhancing communication and strengthening relationships.

Researchers identified things that contributed positively to knowledge uptake by research users. For example, the use of videos and interactive maps, which can help users such as Traditional Owners to assimilate and use project information. They also identified things that hindered the use of project outcomes, such as confusion between the roles of research and government planning, and the limited capacity of some organisations to use research outputs.

August 2021

The Northern Australia Environmental Resources Hub addressed key research questions to come up with practical, on-ground solutions to some of the north’s most complex environmental challenges. A transdisciplinary research approach has been at the heart of the hub. Integrating key research users – policy-makers and land managers including Traditional Owners and ranger groups – into the co-design of research projects has led to rapid uptake of research outcomes into land management practices and decision-making. The hub has produced this wrap-up video outlining these impacts from the perspectives of research users.

The project was led by Professors Michael Douglas and David Pannell (University of Western Australia). For further information, contact Dr Milena Kiatkoski Kim.

This project was completed in September 2021.

Michael Douglas, The University of Western Australia
E: [email protected]

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia
E: [email protected]

Milena Kim, The University of Western Australia
E: [email protected]

UWA Logo

  • Environmental field work on the Fitzroy River, photo Leah Beesley.
  • The Fitzroy River's Geikie Gorge, photo Michael Douglas.
  • Fitzroy River, photo Michael Douglas.
  • Camballin Barrage on the Fitzroy River, photo MIchael Douglas.