Rivers crossing disciplinary boundaries

2016-06-01 11:44

May-Britt Öhman’s research on dams and hydropower exploitation transcends the boundaries of several disciplinary domains and can be perceived as an odd bird in both the natural sciences and the humanities. ‘Interaction across disciplinary boundaries requires openness between researchers, humbleness and a willingness to understand each other,’ says Cecilia Åsberg, professor at Tema Genus.

May-Britt Öhman, researcher at Uppsala University, studies how the expansion of hydropower generation is affecting people living along the rivers in northern Sweden. Before rivers such as the Lule and Ume Rivers were regulated for power production, the locals knew where the ice was strong enough to be walked or driven on, but today any such endeavour may cost them their life, she says.

‘The water levels change according to daily variations in electricity consumption, which makes the ice very unpredictable. And some lakes that used to be very small have become huge bodies of water with storms and tricky currents,’ she points out.

She mentions the water reservoir in Suorva at the upper reaches of the Greater Lule river, which has claimed many lives over the years. In the municipality of Jokkmokk, the emergency services estimate that 1-2 persons will die at the water reservoirs every year.

‘That’s a large number considering the very sparse population. This type of danger has become a natural part of everyday life for people who live by the regulated watercourses, and the reindeer-herding Sami are a particularly vulnerable group,’ says May-Britt Öhman.

She will complete the 4-year project Rivers, Resistance and Resilience: Sustainable Futures in Sápmi and in Other Indigenous Peoples’ Territories in the autumn of 2016. The project addresses important contemporary issues such as energy supply, human security and the rights of the Sami as an indigenous people. She is exploring not only the behaviour of the regulated rivers but also the structure of the safety efforts made at the dams. This is research of politically explosive nature. If one of the larger dams were to break, downstream communities such as Boden, Luleå and Umeå would face some catastrophic consequences.

Earlier this spring, Maj-Britt Öhman sparked a debate when she pointed to the need for additional safety assessments after the minor earthquake in the Gulf of Bothnia on 19 March. Another scientist remarked that Öhman exaggerated the risks at Swedish dams and rivers, that things are in good order and that there is no reason to worry.

Hierarchies between different types of research

There is nothing strange about researchers reaching different conclusions, says Cecilia Åsberg, professor at Tema Genus, Linköping University.

‘Differing interests may collide, and that’s ok. Discussing and sorting things out is beneficial. It’s important to remember that there is a need for different types of research,’ she continues.

She believes that today most researchers, regardless of discipline, agree that the outcome of research is affected by the people involved and the perspectives from which questions are approached. The notion of true knowledge is increasingly questioned also outside the academic sphere. For example, some time ago a popular quiz show on British television spent a whole episode revising ‘facts’ from previous evenings.

New discoveries lead to new insights, but at the same time as the notion of true knowledge is being questioned, we live in an expert-driven society where media and the public have strong faith in researchers and scientists. This is particularly true for experts in the domains of medicine and the natural sciences, says Cecilia Åsberg. The way she sees it, physics is at the top of the scientific hierarchy, followed by biology. At the bottom of the list, we find social science and the humanities.

‘When researchers interact, they don’t do it on equal terms. It’s problematic that some are appointed experts while others may even be pointed out as pseudoscientific. We haven’t really learned to question whom we grant expert status,’ she says.

Tying technical and social aspects together

The work of Cecilia Åsberg and May-Britt Öhman falls in the zone between the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Cecilia Åsberg is leading the work at the Posthumanities Hub and the Seed Box – a MISTRA-Formas Environmental Humanities Collaboratory that includes researchers from different disciplines.

May-Britt Öhman leads the technoscience research group at the Centre for Gender Research, Uppsala University. Her research is interdisciplinary as it draws from social science, technoscience and the humanities. The project on the consequences of hydropower for local populations also involves non-academic actors such as artists, representatives from industry and authorities, and Sami villages and organisations.

‘I want to involve different groups and take advantage of their knowledge and experiences, but also bring attention to their perspectives,’ says May-Britt Öhman.

In her research, she intertwines technical and social aspects to give a complete picture of how the hydropower production affects people who live along the rivers. Ensuring acceptable security around the dams requires a focus beyond mere technical issues. There is also a need for effective systems for maintenance and control and for an understanding of how people interact with each other and with the constructions and the water,’ she explains.

Interdisciplinary research of her type causes certain problems, she continues. For example, it can be difficult to acquire funding, since potential funding sources often want to be able to categorise applications for funding according to the conventional disciplinary domains, which doesn’t work well in her case.

‘When we apply for funding in the natural sciences, we are often referred to the sections for the humanities and social sciences, but they don’t always understand what we want to do,’ she says.

She adds that a great deal of the research on hydropower, dams and mines is funded by companies and organisations with special interests.

‘This makes it difficult to be granted funding for critical research that questions the mining industry and points to the risks associated with hydropower. It only makes sense. There’s a need for more independent research to create a better balance,’ she says.

A need for openness and a willingness to understand

According to May-Britt Öhman, the interdisciplinary technoscientific gender research lacks a solid platform in Sweden. The reasons for this include difficulties acquiring funding, and also that researchers in different disciplines often are sceptical of each other, she believes.

‘The gender concept tends to meet resistance within technology research, but there are problems in gender research, too. Many gender researchers don’t know what technology researchers do,’ she days.

Cecilia Åsberg agrees that other gender researchers can have problems understanding technoscientific gender research, but she believes that the theories and approaches from the field are gaining increasing attention. The hopes the future will bring more meeting places where researchers from different disciplines and scientific traditions can interact and learn from each other.

‘There are some places like that, but they are far too few,’ she says.

Interdisciplinary research collaborations cannot be successful without an openness between the researchers involved and a willingness to understand each other, she points out.

‘Researchers obviously need to discuss and question each other’s findings, but it is also important that they respect the competence of other researchers,’ she says.

‘We can’t use a sledgehammer on those we feel threated by. Doing so makes fruitful interaction impossible and it is in the interaction that the really great research emerges.’

Author Charlie Olofsson, translated by Debbie Axlid
Photo Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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