OOS 14-7
Improving cross-disciplinary collaboration in the study of coupled human and natural systems: Lessons from a statewide, socio-ecological study in Oklahoma

Tuesday, August 12, 2014: 3:40 PM
203, Sacramento Convention Center
Jack R. Friedman, Center for Applied Social Research, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK
Duncan Wilson, Natural Resource Ecology and Management, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK
Renee McPherson, Geography and Environmental Sustainability, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK
Alicia Knoedler, Center for Research Program Development and Enrichment, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK

Practical challenges face researchers committed to implementing coupled human and natural systems (CHANS) research projects, not least of which is how to design collaborative research across the physical, natural, and social sciences. The starting point for any research project is defining the questions to be addressed. In the case of CHANS research, the questions must both advance knowledge of coupled human and natural systems, as well as be relevant to the specific, contemporary “hot topics” within any researcher’s discipline. Failure to meet both of these conditions leads to superficial collaborations that often fail to truly capture the complexities of coupled human and natural systems. In addition, special challenges emerge from a lack of agreement regarding the definition of key terms and concepts. For instance, basic conceptual disagreements and incompatibilities between concepts like adaptation, resiliency, and even community can heighten problems with CHANS research. Here we report on initial challenges and the ways in which a large cross-disciplinary team of physical, natural, and social scientists have addressed these challenges through an explicitly spatial scaling of socio-ecological problems. 


We describe a model for cross-disciplinary collaboration drawn from Oklahoma’s recent NSF EPSCoR-funded research on socio-ecological responses to climate variability. We show how real-world, geographical collocation of research drawing on the state of the science across disciplines ensured genuine collaboration that provided more detailed and accurate understandings of coupled human and natural systems in Oklahoma. A critical aspect was recognizing that different disciplines often operate at different scales. Consequently, we illustrate how different geographical scales were successfully synthesized to study socio-ecological features of climate change, climate variability, and severe weather in Oklahoma. We illustrate how the methods used by some researchers (e.g. ethnographic studies, station-based climate observations) complemented those used by other researchers (e.g., survey-based approaches, remote sensing, modeling) to help validate and interpret the broader geographic extent of each method. Scales spanned national (economics, climate science), state (political science, economics, climate science, meteorology), watershed (hydrology, climate science, biology), county (political science), and community (sociology, anthropology, economics, biology), with remote sensing unifying geographical scales and disciplines. A greater recognition of disciplinary differences and how these differences can enhance research in unexpected and unpredicted ways can help strengthen collaboration and reduce siloing of research in coupled human and natural systems research.