Pursuing interdisciplinary whole systems energy research: insights from UKERC

09 Oct 2017

Interdisciplinary whole systems research has attracted increasing interest both in the UK and internationally as a response to complex societal challenges such as the sustainable energy transition.

In a new journal article published in Energy Research and Social Science, I argue that whole systems research is often poorly understood by funders, commissioners, assessors and the researchers involved, in terms of its particular aims and needs.

While there is no ‘one best way’ to carry out such research, all interdisciplinary whole systems research  initiatives are likely to face similar challenges: integration versus diversity, stability versus flexibility and independence versus engagement.

Drawing on the interdisciplinary studies literature, the paper considers whole systems research 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.

The broad 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, whole systems research is often funded, practiced 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 whole systems research  strategy and practice, drawing on the experiences of UKERC and other initiatives. Learning from the experience of UKERC and other similar initiatives can promote a better understanding of interdisciplinary whole systems research as a distinct research form. 

Further Reading and Information

  • The full journal article is available here.
  • UKERC’s full Research Report on interdisciplinarity is available here.
  • For further information, please email: mark.winskel@ed.ac.uk

Dr Mark Winskel is Chancellor’s Fellow and Senior Lecturer in the Science, Technology and Innovation Studies Group, in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. He was UKERC’s national Research Co-ordinator in ‘Phase 2’ (2009-14), and continues to contribute to UKERC’s research on future energy system pathways. His also contributes to ClimateXChange, Scotland’s national centre for expertise on climate change with over 20 years’ experience as an interdisciplinary energy researcher.