In the recently published LTER “White paper” [29
], describing priority research themes, potentials, and framework conditions for LTER in Austria as a whole, LTER was divided into the thematic areas (1) “process-oriented ecosystem research”; (2) “biodiversity research and conservation biology”; and (3) “socio-ecological research, LTSER”. For the purposes of this paper, we propose a slightly different categorization of LTSER, acknowledging the fact that LTSER aims at understanding change in ecosystems on the one hand and socio-ecological interactions on the other hand, and requires cooperation with stakeholders in order to produce meaningful knowledge for sustainable regional development. We identified the following three research strands characterized by particular methodological approaches and challenges:
Long-term ecological research [30
] investigating ecological patterns and processes. This strand applies mostly natural sciences methodologies to investigate ecological patterns and processes, using ecological evidence, e.g., from the platform’s ecological monitoring sites.
Socio-ecological basic research (e.g., [31
]), focused on socio-economic drivers and responses to ecological change, as well as biophysical interactions between ecological and societal processes. In addition to ecological evidence, this strand requires information on socio-economic processes, and applies a variety of interdisciplinary methods informed by social sciences and humanities, as well as the natural sciences.
Transdisciplinary research [32
] in LTSER describes the interaction of researchers of any discipline with regional stakeholders, which is an activity that may be an element in research projects of either LTER or socio-ecological strands.
Given the interdisciplinary nature of LTSER, the research projects contribute to more than just one of the strands. Table 2
provides an overview of the individual contributions of projects to the strands.
3.1. Long-Term Ecological Research
Long-term ecological research is concerned with the long-term impacts of external and internal drivers on ecosystems. Ecosystem research is per se an interdisciplinary endeavour [33
], involving contributions from abiotic and biotic research, and research at various spatio-temporal scales. In the Eisenwurzen LTSER platform, ecosystem monitoring sites provide rich databases for research. Many monitoring sites in the Eisenwurzen LTSER platform have been in existence for a long time, and are being used intensively in various research projects. Research benefits not only from a wealth of long-term data but also from a good system understanding generated by the researchers dealing with these data, supporting the development of new hypotheses. Monitoring and reporting (e.g., UNFCCC carbon emission reporting) also benefits from research findings because they allow for a more focused (e.g., which system variables are the most sensitive) and more cost-effective (e.g., sampling design) approach.
In the Eisenwurzen LTSER platform, ecosystems are analysed in terms of (1) biogeochemical ecosystem processes and matter fluxes, i.e., regulation of primary and secondary production in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, interactions between carbon, nutrient and water cycles, and their feedback effects on the climate, and ecosystem stability; and in terms of (2) biodiversity, in particular its links to ecosystem service provision and resource management [29
In the sample of research projects, both issues are addressed. The projects CentForCSink, SEDYN-X, EXCARB, and Reichraming study ecosystem processes in terrestrial (forest, agricultural land) and aquatic (river and lake) ecosystems in the face of natural and societal drivers of change, such as natural disasters and climate change (CentForCSink, EXCARB), direct interventions in ecosystems like river training measures (SEDYN-X), or changes in subsidy systems, agricultural prices and other socio-economic variables (Reichraming). These projects share the common feature of using data from ecological monitoring sites (Zöbelboden, Johnsbachtal, Lake Lunz), which are available at a high spatio-temporal resolution. Connected to this data source is a joint challenge of working with big data from the monitoring sites, which has also been described at other LTER monitoring sites [35
]. Two of the four projects addressing ecosystem processes integrate a substantial socio-ecological perspective: In CentForCSink, historians cooperate with ecologists to study long-term changes in forest management and their effects on forest carbon sinks [36
]. In Reichraming, ecologists and interdisciplinary researchers from social ecology jointly studied the drivers of land use decision-making and their effects on land use-related substance flows [38
]. Three of the four projects have little or no interaction with regional stakeholders. The only exception is the Reichraming project, which included a continuous participatory process with specific stakeholders, plus some educational outreach. Still, all projects make an effort to make their research results known to the regional public.
The research projects dealing with biodiversity research (Be-Natur, Econnect, LUBIO) study biodiversity of vegetation (LUBIO) or habitats in general (Be-Natur, Econnect). They investigate small-scale regions (LUBIO), regional (Econnect) and/or international (Be-Natur, Econnect) networks of protected areas. Biodiversity data in these projects are derived from samplings, from surveys carried out by administrative bodies, collected in stakeholder processes (see below), or available from previous research. Data challenges encountered in these projects referred to a variety of issues, namely access to data from different administrative bodies, data quality, and transferability across case studies. Biodiversity projects in the Eisenwurzen LTSER platform had very tight connections to regional stakeholders, which will be discussed below.
3.2. Socio-Ecological Basic Research
Socio-ecological basic research in LTSER investigates socio-economic processes driving and responding to ecological change, as well as the biophysical interactions between societies and ecosystems. Socio-ecological basic research expands the time periods under investigation in LTSER, using historical sources and developing future scenarios. The disciplines involved, accordingly, range from history (CentForCSink, SFS) to the planning sciences (CC-ILA). Projects mostly cover socio-economic processes directly affecting land use and management, i.e., agriculture (LUBIO, Reichraming, CC-ILA), forestry (CentForCSink), or both (SFS), or conservation management (Econnect, Be-Natur). In several projects, legal, economic, or technological aspects of land use change are analysed. Two projects (SEDYN-X and EXCARB) address socioeconomic processes only indirectly, focusing on the ecosystem effects of particular societal interventions rather than studying the interventions themselves. Socio-ecological basic research requires evidence on societal processes, which is derived from historical sources (CentForCSink, SFS) and aerial photographs (CC-ILA), official statistical surveys (SFS, LUBIO, Reichraming), and from stakeholder processes (Econnect, Be-Natur, CC-ILA, LUBIO, Reichraming).
Working with such data entails particular challenges, such as the integration of qualitative and quantitative information, the lack of compatibility of data sources describing different time periods, or data availability at different scales. Generally, time periods from the more distant past tend to be characterized by scarcer data availability (although individual sources may provide overwhelmingly detailed information). Transforming evidence from historical sources into quantitative socioecological indicators requires rigid methodical control [39
There are different degrees of integration between socioeconomic and ecological research in the Eisenwurzen LTSER platform, which can be placed along the gradient from “multi-” to “interdisciplinarity” [40
]. The most common strategy uses medium-range interdisciplinary approaches, integrating research questions beyond disciplines. Interdisciplinary approaches such as environmental history (SFS), social ecology (LUBIO, Reichraming), or agronomy (CC-ILA) are adopted successfully and continuously in the Eisenwurzen LTSER platform. Interdisciplinary projects investigate processes in ecosystems and society at a uniform spatio-temporal scale, addressing issues such as pre-industrial sustainability problems of land use and land management [41
], the causes of farmers’ decision-making and their effects on landscape and ecosystem features [38
], or potential sustainable climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies in extensive farming [42
]. The strength of these approaches is their capability to analyse causal relations between heterogeneous types of drivers and impacts, risks, vulnerabilities, and resilience.
Another strategy to integrate socioeconomic and ecological research is multidisciplinary cooperation, which is applied in the recently started project CentForCSink. In this project, research is carried out by different disciplines individually at the respective scales of data availability [43
]. Results are juxtaposed and combined in ecological models. Integration of findings takes place mostly after disciplinary data evaluation and analysis. This strategy brings forward pioneering approaches to temporal and spatial upscaling and allows for cross-fertilization of previously disconnected research approaches.
3.3. Transdisciplinary Research
LTSER aims to be context-driven and problem-focused and intends to foster regionally integrated research contributing to sustainable regional development. This strand of LTSER is part of the broad field of transdisciplinary sustainability sciences [44
]. Out of nine projects in our sample, only two do not interact with regional stakeholders at all, while two involve regional stakeholders only as recipients of relevant project results, e.g., through media reports in regional media, leaflets produced with the national park, or in single interactions e.g., in individual interviews.
The other five projects (CC-ILA, LUBIO, Reichraming, Econnect, and Be-Natur) vary strongly in terms of which and how many stakeholders they involve, but less so in terms of how collaboration between researchers and stakeholders operates in the three crucial phases: co-design, co-production, and integration in non-scientific practice [44
CC-ILA, LUBIO, and Reichraming were funded by Austrian national grants for inter- and transdisciplinary research projects, and conducted by Austrian University Institutes that involved regional partners. At the core of the three projects were scientific research questions on land-use related decision-making and its effects on landscapes [46
], which had partly been developed with or proposed to regional stakeholders. These three projects involved small groups of stakeholders only (regional farmers, agricultural experts, some political decision-makers), who provided context-specific knowledge and were interested in project outcomes. In all three projects, modelling and scenario development were used as methods to achieve results relevant for academia, as well as for local stakeholders, which were informed on the potential long-term effects of their decision-making.
Econnect and Be-Natur were funded by EU regional development funds (INTERREG and the Alpine Space Programme), thus their focus was less on basic research and more on implementation of results. Both projects collaborated with regional stakeholders to improve nature conservation measures in the region and beyond [47
]. The institutions involved in the Eisenwurzen LTSER platform are regional, non-academic research institutions with close links to regional non-scientific stakeholders. Both projects collaborated with a wide variety and a high number of stakeholders, including land users, nature conservation managers, representatives from regional development, and teachers, among others.
displays the elements of knowledge co-design, co-production, and integration to societal processes in the five projects. Knowledge co-production was realized using similar methods in all projects (though a slightly broader variety was used in Econnect and Be-Natur). The projects differ more strongly in terms of implementation and application of project results.
The benefits of transdisciplinary collaboration were “normative” and “substantive” [49
] in all projects, i.e., regional stakeholder involvement encouraged social and individual learning, and improved the understanding of the research questions addressed. Transdisciplinary cooperation was also “instrumental” in Econnect and Be-Natur, where stakeholder processes facilitated implementation of project outcomes.