Five days, thirty young scientists, seven senior scientists, fine food, ample wine, and wide-ranging conversations. In the last week of May, 2014 the ISSC and the International Council for Science hosted the second ‘young scientists networking conference’ at Villa Vigoni, Italy.

The main goal was to use a week of discussions around the broad theme of ecosystems and human wellbeing in the green economy to catalyse a network of young scientists from diverse disciplines and locations. As we return to the reality of data analysis, writing and project management, we have been pondering what it takes to harness five days of intellectual energy and three-course meals into a lasting network.

Discussions at #futureeconomy coalesced around two themes: the future of the planet and the future of research. Concern for the future of the planet brought us all together. We believe in the need for transformational change in social, political, and economic systems to build genuine connections between human wellbeing and biodiversity conservation. While we approach these topics through different lenses we share a commitment to using our research to make the world a better place.

Despite a fairly traditional format, this was NOT a traditional conference. We had economists, chemists, ecologists, anthropologists and many more in the same room, hearing the same talks, having the same conversations. Rather than a discipline or academic society, we focused around a common set of problems that transcended geography and disciplinary boundaries. We explored the relationships between our research and the contribution each made to understanding and facilitating transformational change.

Transformational change requires transdisciplinary research. Diverse perspectives create a more holistic picture of both complex problems and their interconnected solutions. Thus discussion inevitably turns to the future of research: the challenges and opportunities of trans- and interdisciplinary research, knowledge co-production, and of balancing scientific rigor with real world relevance.

The 30 young scientists at #futureeconomy are among the leaders in a new generation of science that prioritizes integrated research and real world impact. Talk of interdisciplinary environmental research is now decades old, yet our generation is the first to walk the walk – and that walk is a tough one. During this conference, we were able to learn from each other how to walk a little more confidently. Working together to visualize pathways to navigate interdisciplinary research careers was the true value of this conference.

Interdisciplinarity is a skill – like any skill, it takes practice

Our network has great potential, but the odds are stacked against us. We are separated by disciplines and geography, working in insecure academic positions on other peoples’ projects. Few of us have a funding base we can draw on to support new research collaborations or travel to meetings and conferences. Without job security it is hard to envisage a long term research agenda being spurred by #futureeconomy because we don’t know if the work could continue in our next port of employment. Participation in networks fit poorly within traditional metrics of success – numbers of publications, citations, and grants. Given the pressures we face as young scientists, it can be hard to justify the time it takes to keep something like this alive.

Hard, but not impossible

Networks of young scientists are exciting to be part of. They provide a venue to learn about novel research, opportunities, places, and challenges, and provide a space for cross-fertilization of ideas. They stimulate research collaborations that may (we hope) contribute to transformational change. Social media platforms, web 2.0 and Skype can sustain a virtual network with only small inputs of time and energy. Networks allow us to cross scales to identify local solutions to global problems and global solutions to local problems. Comparative analysis across research topics, methods, and geographies provides a more holistic understanding of the challenges and opportunities presented by the anthropocene. Many of us already transgress disciplinary boundaries, it isn’t that much of a step to use technology to help us transgress geographic boundaries.

So what comes next?

Eight research proposals were developed at Villa Vigoni, but when (if?) we complete those projects we’ll need something else. Networks need to have a purpose and they need to find ways to stay connected and meet in person to keep the energy alive. By staying connected we will be able to track each others’ career paths and share our experiences navigating a changing research landscape as we work to understand our changing planet. Perhaps in the future we could grow our network in new directions. We talked a lot about knowledge co-production and including ‘decision-makers’ in our research. Yet those policy-makers, practitioners, NGOs, and communities were missing from this meeting. Perhaps the next step for the network – or regional or thematic nodes within the network – is to find funding to support a week of science-policy dialogue for emerging young leaders across research, policy, and practice.

Now that would be exciting

This post was co-authored by Carina Wyborn and Leah Samberg, and was originally posted on Pacific Exchange.