This was a follow up consultation to the Defra-led session at SDRN Annual Conference 2009; our response offers examples of how the Society's work can support interaction between policymakers and researchers, and suggests approaches that can enable interdisciplinary cooperation.
Response submitted 2009
Many learned societies, including the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), are in a strong position to assist, both strategically and practically, with this work. One of our key strategic objectives, for example, is to: “promote the recognition and understanding of the relevance of geography and geographical information to policy, placing geography firmly in the debates about the future of places, environments and communities”.
As a discipline grounded in both social and physical sciences, research activities of geographers are frequently interdisciplinary in nature. We have long learned that good communication is essential to create an effective understanding across the different methodologies to research taken in the social and natural sciences, even within our own discipline.
There are a number of ways in which the Society, either on its own or in collaboration with other learned societies, can support policy teams in Government:
Providing forums for dialogue between policy teams in Government and social researchers in varying formats: from round-table discussions to day-long seminar events – with a mix of people from social and environmental research backgrounds including, potentially, economics;
Responding to consultations, providing summaries of research and other information collated by widely consulting with our own network of ‘professionals’ who we can call on for expertise;
Proposing names for high-level policy groups within Government, as we did most recently with the Foresight programme, and providing contacts where there may be specific/detailed research questions.
Our views in relation to the three questions are:
To encourage social researchers to work more effectively with those from other disciplines, including economics, requires:
The development of trust, respect and inter-personal contacts across disciplines – perhaps for example through a cross-disciplinary forum for the social sciences.
A clear understanding, and willingness to recognise, what strengths each discipline brings to the table (and all disciplines do bring strengths).
Through exemplar projects which have as one of their objectives specifically to illustrate the benefits on interdisciplinary teams.
By including the wide range of disciplines from the earliest stage of formulating projects or programmes of activity. All too often ‘social researchers’ are brought in at a late stage and feel no ownership therefore of the project, having not had the opportunity to contribute to the formulation of the research approach.
The social research questions will in part be specific to each topic. The overarching questions are about sustainability, communities and behaviour change, for example:
Whether we can measure – or otherwise convincingly demonstrate - understanding about the relevance of environment in general, and ecosystem services in particular, to societies and communities; how societies and communities ‘value’ the environment.
What role this plays, and its importance, in enabling sustainable behaviours and lifestyles: this includes ethics/spirituality, aesthetics, enjoyment, sense of place, and a broader ‘love of nature’.
Whether and how this ‘valuing’ varies between different socio-economic groups and within BME groups, and what the implications of that are for spatial areas in which such groups are more concentrated.
Individuals’ price elasticity in relation to key behaviours – e.g. buying locally sourced food; travel and mobility.
How attitudes and practices to individual responsibility are (or are not) affected by the policies and activities of ‘governments’ at local, national and international levels.
The key issue / challenge on how to encourage closer working across scientific disciplines is cultural. It can be traced to the ethos of different disciplines, together with their languages and methodologies. This is not to argue that disciplinary approaches should be abandoned for ‘interdisciplinary training – far from it as the disciplines bring rigour and depth – but to recognise that they are embedded during university training.
Therefore, it is important to ensure that undergraduates leave university with not only a sound understanding of their own discipline, but also a greater understanding of how other disciplines contribute different approaches. Postgraduates should be trained in team work and have practical experience of interdisciplinary team-working in which they bring discipline expertise to work alongside others from different disciplines to research and report on an issue.
Our response stresses that geography makes a distinctive and important contribution to learning about Africa and its diaspora in relation to teaching pupils about their contemporary and geographically diverse nature.
Our evidence to the Cabinet Office focuses on the role of geography in delivering geospatial and broader geographical skills. We highlight a need to support subject specialist staff and relevant GI training in schools and HE.
Our response emphasises the importance of subject-specific knowledge, pedagogy, skills and community engagement.
Our response to the green paper on industrial strategy pays particular attention to the role of social sciences in developing skills, and the need for a geographical/spatial basis to regional development planning.
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