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The Crucial Role of Nomothetic and Idiographic Conceptions of Time: Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Nuclear Waste Management


Institute for Environmental Decisions, Natural and Social Science Interface, ETH Zurich, 8092 Zurich, Switzerland. Address correspondence to Corinne Moser, Institute for Environmental Decisions, Natural and Social Science Interface, ETH Zurich, Universitaetstrasse 22, 8092 Zurich, Switzerland; tel: +41 44 632 58 65; fax: +41 44 632 10 29;


The disposal of nuclear waste involves extensive time scales. Technical experts consider up to 1 million years for the disposal of spent fuel and high-level waste in their safety assessment. Yet nuclear waste is not only a technical but also a so-called sociotechnical problem and, therefore, requires interdisciplinary collaboration between technical, natural, social sciences, and the humanities in its management. Given that these disciplines differ in their language, epistemics, and interests, such collaboration might be problematic. Based on evidence from cognitive psychology, we suggest that, in particular, a concept like time is presumably critical and can be understood differently. This study explores how different scientific disciplines understand extensive time scales in general and then focuses on nuclear waste. Eighteen qualitative exploratory interviews were conducted with experts for time-related phenomena of different disciplines, among them experts working in nuclear waste management. Analyses revealed two distinct conceptions of time corresponding to idiographic and nomothetic research approaches: scientists from the humanities and social sciences tend to have a more open, undetermined conception of time, whereas natural scientists tend to focus on a more determined conception that includes some undetermined aspects. Our analyses lead to reflections on potential difficulties for interdisciplinary teams in nuclear waste management. We focus on the understanding of the safety assessment, on potential implications for communication between experts from different disciplines (e.g., between experts from the humanities and engineering for risk assessment and risk communication), and we reflect on the roles of different disciplines in nuclear waste management.