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Assessing integrated sustainability research: use of social network analysis to evaluate scientific integration and transdisciplinarity in research networks

Bixler, R. Patrick, Samer Atshan, Jay L. Banner, Darrel Tremaine, and Robert Mace. 2019. Assessing Integrated Sustainability Research: Use of Social Network Analysis to Evaluate Scientific Integration and Transdisciplinarity in Research Networks. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. 39:103–113.


Global environmental challenges are increasingly complex and interdependent and the sentiment that sustainability requires new approaches to integrating science and policy is ubiquitous. This is the domain of sustainability science. Yet, major gaps exist in our understanding of the relationships between researchers from different disciplines and between science, policy, and management. While scientific research is shifting toward greater collaboration and transdisciplinarity, we need to improve our understanding of the processes and structures that lead to successful scientific collaboration and high-impact, innovative science-policy outcomes. ‘Networks and networking’ offer a powerful strategy for integration in sustainability science, yet empirical research assessing network-based integration is limited. Using social network analysis, we empirically investigate the integration of the Texas Water Research Network (TWRN), which comprises academic and non-academic participants from multiple universities, disciplines and research orientations seeking to address the challenges posed by complex, multilevel water resource issues across the state of Texas. We found that TWRN members were relatively well connected (an average of 3.8 ties per member), but that some research groups (e.g. water science) were way more active and connected than others (e.g. scenario building). Within the different phases of the research process, bringing results to fruition was the most transdisciplinary. Utilizing analytical methods from network science can offer techniques to analyze and evaluate, as well as prescribe interventions and enable action in transdiciplinary research networks.

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