How coupled is coupled human-natural systems research?


Interdisciplinary research that links human and natural systems is critical to addressing complex environmental and ecological problems. A growing number of interdisciplinary research teams investigate coupled natural-human systems, but the degree to which they actually examine two-way linkages between the systems is limited. We examined aspects of interdisciplinary teams that were explicitly funded to conduct research including such linkages by considering attributes of team leaders, team members, and analysis methods employed. Our objective was to investigate the degree to which interdisciplinary teams studying coupled natural-human systems publish research that displays two-way linkages between systems. Our analysis shows that team members’ academic disciplines and the types of analysis methods that interdisciplinary teams apply play a crucial role in the success of the team in publishing articles that include two-way linkages. We found that the success of developing two-way linkages is enhanced when teams include leaders and/or members from interdisciplinary academic disciplines (e.g., planning departments, sustainability, environmental economics, biological and ecological engineering, and individuals affiliated with more than one academic department from different discipline categories). Additionally, the presence of social science members increases the likelihood of two-way linkages, whereas the presence of physical science or biological/life science members decreases this likelihood. Among articles that included two-way linkages, essentially all utilized a conceptual-/literature-review approach, or included simulation model analysis. Based on these findings, we conclude that interdisciplinary teams are not a mere sum of people from different academic disciplines, but a group of people who have the ability to incorporate different disciplines conceptually and analytically. To move forward, it is important to acknowledge that becoming an interdisciplinary researcher takes deliberative work. Educational programs that train students and early career scholars with flexible thinking and analytical capacities may be the key to furthering coupled natural-human systems research.

Publication Type
Journal Article
Katherine Lacasse, Rhode Island College
Louis Gross, University of Tennessee
Brian Beckage, University of Vermont
Ecology and Society