Why transdisciplinary research?
The features of many pressing societal challenges means disciplinary approaches, in isolation, are no longer enough. Multiple disciplinary perspectives provide partial and often incompatible explanations of the structures, causes or effects that matter. And often, many candidate solutions are available to address these issues, but there is uncertainty or disagreement about what to prioritise or avoid. In these situations, ‘rigorous science’ according to the criteria of a single discipline may not be enough to create results that are considered socially-robust (Nowotny et al. 2003).
Knowledge seeps through institutions and structures like water through the pores of a membrane. Knowledge seeps in both directions, from science to society as well as from society to science. It seeps through institutions and from academia to and from the outside world. Transdisciplinarity is therefore about transgressing boundaries.
Transdisciplinary research responds to these challenges and to changes in how our societies produce knowledge. It recognises that, in many areas, universities don’t have a monopoly over knowledge production (see Gibbons et al. 1994, Nowotny et al. 2001). Multiple knowledge producers and a growing number of non-academic stakeholders are both capable and active in creating knowledge and sometimes disputing scientific claims.
Different forms of research coexist and can support one another: curiosity-led basic research goes hand in hand with applied research, and increasingly, participatory and problem-oriented forms of research. And collaborations between academia, industry, public agencies and civil society play are increasingly central for how innovations come about.
According to Pohl et al. (2007), transdisciplinary research is most needed in situations when :
- The knowledge about socially relevant problems is uncertain:
- There is debate about which processes, parameters and expertises are relevant
- There are competing ways to describe the problem or explain its causes
- There are high stakes for the actors concerned with the problems
In these situations, transdisciplinary research can “(a) grasp the complexity of problems, (b) take into account the diversity of life-world and scientific perceptions of problems, (c) link abstract and case-specific knowledge, and (d) develop knowledge and practices that promote what is perceived to be the common good”. These can be understood as ‘requisites for transdisciplinarity’ (Pohl et al. 2007)
Benefits and Challenges
Transdisciplinary approaches bring many advantages but there are also challenges. The following draws on the insights of prof. dr. John Robinson, University of Toronto.
Funding, publishing, university incentives and careers
Conventional research is supported through traditional academic funding streams, criteria for hiring, promotion, and tenure, and opportunities for publishing. The need and interest in transdisciplinary research is leading to a shift toward supporting these efforts in stakeholder collaboration to address societal issues. It is important to note that transdisciplinary research and funding is not yet common practice. Challenges remain to pursue transdisciplinary research approaches while satisfying traditional criteria for academic success.
We continue to provide updates of opportunities through our news and blogs, Pathways listserv, community channel, and on the Resources page of this field guide.
Transdisciplinary research can create some uncomfortable trade-offs for individual researchers. A recent study by Newig et al. (2019) found that engaging practitioners early in the project improves the societal impacts of research, but negatively impacted both publication outputs and citations. The same study found that engaging practitioners negatively impacts PhD completion. These effects can be mitigated through careful project design and management.