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The pursuit of interdisciplinary whole systems energy research: Insights from the UK Energy Research Centre

Winskel, M

Energy Research & Social Science   37 74-84


October 2017

Interdisciplinary whole systems research (WSR) is attracting increasing interest as a way to address to complex societal challenges such as sustainable energy. However, WSR typically involves challenging research elements (radical disciplinary scope, integrative knowledge production and transdisciplinary design), which are seen by some as intellectually and institutionally flawed. Drawing on the interdisciplinary studies literature, this paper considers WSR strategy and practice in the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) over its first two phases (2004–14) and compares UKERC to other similar UK-based initiatives. WSR strategy and practice face a number of tensions: integration versus diversity, stability versus flexibility and independence versus engagement. The emphasis in UKERC was on integration in the first phase and diversity and flexibility in the second phase – a pattern largely imposed by funders, assessors and stakeholders, rather than by internal strategy. Though granted ambitious remits, WSR is often funded, practised and assessed in the margins of disciplinary based research systems, rather than as a distinctive research form. There is a need to better attend to the choices and trade-offs involved in WSR strategy and practice, drawing on the experiences of UKERC and other initiatives. As a guide, the paper introduces a number of interdisciplinary WSR archetypes.