Posted by: jleventon | June 9, 2011

“How did your involvement in a research network impact on your research?”

The answer to a very good question from a committee member in my thesis pre-defence, which I passed (phew).

This blog post is prompted by a question on my interdisciplinary work environment that I was asked in my thesis pre-defence.  My committee gave me some nice things to think over.  In particular, I was asked about my involvement in a wider research network during the PhD research; the AquaTRAIN network consisted of 15 PhD and post-doc researchers in 15 European institutions, researching every aspect of the problem of naturally-occurring arsenic in groundwater.  I was the official social scientist amongst 14 epidemiologists, geochemists and biochemists and my role in the network was to look at policy implications of research findings.  The PhD topic that I created was to explain non-implementation of EU policies relating to the control of health impacts from arsenic in groundwater.  The main question raised at my pre-defence in relation to the network was over how I thought being a member had impacted upon my research. I have given it some thought, and this blog post presents my answer.

Working in a network has provided me with access to a wealth of knowledge and expertise.  I learned about dose-response curves in epidemiology; biomarkers of arsenic exposure; environmental controls on arsenic mobility in soils; and much more besides.  In short, if I needed to find out any information about the source, pathway and exposure components of the problem of geogenic arsenic in groundwater, I had access to people who knew and were willing to tell (or give me a paper to read).  In this way, the network contributed to providing the foundation knowledge I needed to access different disciplines.

The network also provided me with the opportunity to think critically about the knowledge I was accessing. I had opportunities to observe the working processes of peers in other fields, and therefore gained insight into how knowledge is constructed in their discipline. Through joint workshops, I even did some water sampling, learned about soil analysis, did some GIS analysis and chemical modeling. By understanding the construction processes, I can better understand the strengths and limitations in results, how they fit together and barriers to integration.  In this way, the network contributed to the skills I needed to integrate different disciplines.

My communication skills were often tested through my involvement in the network.  I gave conference presentations on my own work to an audience comprising physical scientists. I found that if I pitched it too hard, and used language from my discipline, no-one understood what I was trying to say.  But if I pitched it too easy, they considered that it wasn’t academic work and it was harder to convince them that it was worth listening.  On a more local scale, this dilemma existed in discussions within the network; I found I was tailoring my language or presenting my points using concepts or comparisons with the physical disciplines in order to be understood.  Being understood while maintaining academic respect was essential in shaping research output, discussing points and in having other people understand how my work fitted into theirs. I am not saying that I am perfect at such communication (I’ll recount horror stories one day), but in providing me with practice, the network has contributed to my ability to use my acquired skills and knowledge in order to implement and disseminate research.

So to answer the original question of how the network impacted upon my research, the answer is that it became integral to the research.  The findings of my thesis highlight that non-implementation of policies is caused by failings in the causal theories and the administration of policies, and that these occur at multiple points in the governance system.  Reaching these findings was only possible because of the big-picture, holistic approach that I took in my research.  I studied the entire governance system including all policy actors, the written policies, the outcomes they prompted and their justification.   I could not have taken this approach if I had not been able to engage with, and draw on, the diverse range of physical science that is incorporated into water policies.  Therefore, while the research itself was independent and had a methodology which stands alone, my ability to design and execute it was vastly enriched by my involvement within the interdisciplinary network.  With this answer in mind, I tweaked my thesis conclusions a little; in the section where I discuss future requirements in implementation research, I also argue for a problem-focussed network approach as a way of meeting these requirements.



  1. Interesting stuff. I wonder if the natural scientists from the network would say the same about the way they now view and construct knowledge as a result of their interaction with you, or it is more to do with your training as a social scientist (with the network giving you an opportunity to put this training into practice?)..,

  2. Good question – I have just sent them an email to ask, so maybe someone will comment and give us an insight!

  3. I think even for me, one of these natural scientist from the network, it is a difficult question to answer. I am quit convinced that my PhD thesis would have been exactly the same without a social scientist in the network (sorry Julia). Since my first year at University I have a strong interest in communicating science to the public, but it seems I always forgot about policies. Due to Julias contribution at least I realise that. I am not so sure if this will change my scientific output, we will see in the coming years….

  4. Working in a network and interact with a social scientist certainly has an impact on my research now and most certainly will in the future. First of all, working with you Julia, made me realise the importance of comunicating science in a way that non specialists can understand it, this approach make people more comfortable and more eager to learn. Also it allows them to ask questions which you would never have thought of on your own or that no one in your field would come up with. Secondly, your work made me realise (and this was very naive of me) that people we are “working for”, meaning people living in contaminated area maybe do not want our help! They might be happy drinking As tainted water for different reasons, maybe they prefer the taste fo the water or it doesn’t leave them thirsty like the tap water does or maybe it is for a lack of trust in the political system (They think: our government forces us to pay for “clean” tap water when we can have free water on the well ouside!). This dawned on me after listening to your talks, and it made me think a lot about how to interact with people. I can say I understand where they come from, I am a smoker! So if some stranger would come to me and tell me in a condescending tone: “It’s ok, I’m here to help you stop smoking so you live longer” I guess I would react quite badly too and he might be surprised that I enjoy contaminating myself. I know that cigarettes are addictive and that it is a bit different from what we are talking about but I like this analogy.
    I can’t say I have any answers but working with you made me ask myself different questions. Just a quick example: recently, I was thinking about a potential research project on indoor air quality in houses burning biomass (1.8 millions people suffer from it, half of them kids), we have contacts in Malawi, Nepal, Bangladesh and China and I was thinking that it would be interesting to have on the team a social scientist to understand how these people live, why/when/how they use such and such type of biomass and how it would be possible to make them decide for cleaner energy such as biogas. Although it is important for the policy makers and the scientific community to gain very precise results on the amount of heavy metals emitted (for exemple), it is not what will make these people change their habit! It is not by showing them a beautiful sigma plot graph that they will realise it is dangerous. However if we can understand how they think, it can give us some insight on how to make them accept alternatives.
    This is the type of thinking I possess now thanks to working with a social scientist.
    A natural scientist alone can do great things in terms of characterising and understanding important issues, however, if one wants to act on it, a social scientist is needed. Moreover, when it comes to really quantify the impact of certain pollutions on populations, it is very important to understand the way these populations are living.

  5. Thanks for reading and leaving your thoughts Geerke and Adrien! Its very interesting to see what you think.

    I will think them over and see if any others come in – maybe a post script to this blog post will follow!

  6. As a one of those natural scientists, I think I can safely say that interacting with a social scientist is something that I have definitely benefited from. I also think its something most scientists would benefit from as well (think of climate change, and the recent furor over mammograms in the US). As someone that would like to do more science that is relevant to human health (and even if I was not), having the tools to understand how other non-physical scientists, policy makers and the public , view and interpret my data, as well as the limitations they may face in actually trying to do something with it, is key is key generating knowledge that will be acted upon. This way of thinking did not have a big practical impact on the way I did things in AquaTRAIN, as my goal during AquaTRAIN was to answer basic scientific questions (for an audience that consisted mostly of other physical scientist), not deliver results that could be directly acted upon. Hence, my interactions with other physical scientists had a greater impact on my work, as they provided me with knowledge that I could directly use to tackle the questions before me. This was a limitation of what we were funded to do. Depending on the direction of my career/science, those interactions with Julia may play a bigger role in how I perceive and construct knowledge.

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