Transdisciplinary research for sustainability: why and how?

By Joern Fischer

While a few years ago, a relatively small crowd of ‘insiders’ advocated that we need to bring to bear both the natural and social sciences to tackle environmental problems, this now seems to be a pretty mainstream conviction. (For those readers keen on terminology, see the bottom of this entry for a definition of multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary work. Down where the asterisk is … thanks!) But although the idea that we should be doing transdisciplinary work has become mainstream, practice is still a bit behind.

For example, in the social science journals, you still find that people cite mostly other social science journals; even in interdisciplinary articles. And the same is true for the natural sciences. Moreover, it’s still harder to get interdisciplinary work published in leading journals; funding is still harder to attract through some of the most esteemed funding bodies (though increasingly easier via alternative avenues!); and we still find claims of ‘interdisciplinarity’ in some papers where people from 2 or 3 very closely related subdisciplines work together.

First, why do we need transdisciplinary sustainability research? To be relevant. Or in other words: to avoid being utterly irrelevant. Of course we need a sound basis from multiple disciplinary perspectives to understand a given environmental challenge, but no discipline on its own holds all the relevant answers. Things only become interesting (and relevant) when multiple perspectives come together.

Take our work in Romania, as an example. Biodiversity here has co-evolved with culture and land use practices; biodiversity challenges depend on human decisions regarding land use; EU policy changes the incentives for local land use practices; add to that some tensions between different local actors or demographic groups, and it’s pretty clear that science alone (no matter of which type) won’t be terribly useful here. It’s all about working with people, and understanding the social and ecological challenges together (and the economic ones, of course).

I’ve been lucky to work with my friend Kate Sherren and a bunch of other colleagues on an interdisciplinary project in Australia. The project was all about trees on farms, and sustainable ways of running livestock grazing enterprises. We think the project worked quite well. Sure, some things could have been better — but overall, we feel it worked reasonably well, and our sense is that at least some of the stakeholders found our work useful, too.

Having observed interdisciplinary projects for some time, having (collaboratively) dreamt up and completed one such project, and now having started a new one in Romania, I have some views on what makes such projects work. Here is what I think are some key enabling factors:

1. A small team of dedicated people. It’s fine to engage lots of experts on well-defined tasks, but interdisciplinary integration will work best if the core team is small. Within a small team, people get to know each other and trust each other. The trust thus built is important to overcome the divides between disciplines.

2. Lots of time from few people! Integration takes time. I find it much more useful to have a small number of people devote lots of time, than many people devote a little bit of time each. In other words: 5 people who each devote 80% of their time is better than 40 people who each devote 10% of their time. Both types of projects exist. Those with 40 people also produce stuff, possibly even big stuff: but I’d argue that the scope for true integration is inherently much more limited in such big projects.

3. A shared, geographical research focus. Real-world sustainability problems are tied to places. Whether it’s energy policy, or sustainable agriculture — these general themes only start to be filled with life if they are discussed in a real place. What works really nicely is if the places studied by social scientists (for example) are also those studied by natural scientists. This gives a very natural reason to talk about issues that cut across disciplines.

4. Regular opportunities for informal exchange. You need places to hang out, drink coffee (or herbal tea for the politically more correct readers) and bounce ideas around. This requires space, both in time and physically.

Anything else? Probably … Feel free to leave your comments! What makes transdisciplinary projects work?

(* This may not be universally accepted, but here is my view on the multiple definitions that are relevant here: Multidisciplinary work is when multiple disciplines work side by side, but without real integration. Interdisciplinary work occurs when there is integration. Transdisciplinary work is when it’s not just a bunch of academics but also stakeholders, such as farmers, policy makers, or urban residents.)

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6 thoughts on “Transdisciplinary research for sustainability: why and how?

  1. Nice post. I am a bit afraid to not live in those times when all these words like sustainability, transdisciplinatiry, being resilient, etc. to be inflated…and meaningless. Like the word ‘-eco’ today. Or like many other words linked to morality and ethics, under which big unfair things occur…

  2. Thanks for the mention, Joern. Yes, I think that ‘Sustainable Farms’ worked really well, too, in terms of team collaboration and the diversity of our output: papers (this one in particular for the transdisciplinary approach: http://www.springerlink.com/content/8h13063p147j421k/), school curricula, farmer extension materials and even a public YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVojTsvmmKU). A shared desire to make a genuine difference eases disciplinary differences and keeps the team focused forward.

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  5. We have tried “speed collaboration” because turn over is high and so few people have time to go deep but I like the coffee idea better. “Kensan” is required, theYamagishi term for patiently getting deeply into problems or situations. Patience and time and fearless reflection.

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