By Dena Fam, Tanzi Smith and Dana Cordell
What skills and dispositions are required by researchers and practitioners in transdisciplinary research and practice in crossing boundaries, sectors and paradigms?
The insights here come from interviews with 14 internationally recognized transdisciplinary researchers and practitioners, chosen from a diverse range of research and practice-based perspectives.
Here we focus on:
1) skills for specific tasks such as facilitation of a meeting, crafting a well-written report, and communicating effectively across disciplines; and,
2) dispositions, attitudes, orientations and temperaments of an effective researcher/practitioner, i.e., as a way of being.
Six categories of skills and dispositions
The core skills and dispositions of an exceptional transdisciplinary researcher/practitioner can be grouped into six categories, illustrated in the figure below.
(Source: Dena Fam)
Some categories are operational, such as communication, while others, such as creativity and curiosity, develop primarily through experiential learning and/or are innate characteristics of an individual. In brief:
- Critical awareness is a form of reflexive thinking and openness to others’ suggestions
- Communication is required both to clarify one’s own perspective and to work successfully together with others
- Commitment needs to be paired with an ability to “challenge the status quo”
- Connectedness is needed to synthesize diverse perspectives of thought
- Creativity comes into play in designing novel approaches/methods and thinking laterally through a puzzling challenge
- Curiosity involves a flexibility and willingness to explore new insights beyond one’s own expertise.
While there was limited consensus among interviewees as to which of these skills and dispositions might be successfully taught and which were innate qualities, it was overwhelmingly agreed that a transdisciplinary researcher does not just ‘appear from heaven’ but rather requires nurturing and skills development.
Rather than prescriptively demarcating these six categories into those that can and cannot be taught, it is more constructive to perceive of these skills and dispositions as interconnected and overlapping characteristics in which a transdisciplinary researcher might aim to develop knowledge and competence.
The necessary skills and competencies are illustrated in the following figures:
There are distinct links and overlaps among the skills and disposition in the different categories. Compare, for example, Communication and Connectedness, as well as Creativity and Curiosity. For the last two, the lack of certainty and methodological structure often associated with transdisciplinarity require imagination and creativity to navigate the uncertainty. Curiosity was perceived to enable “…finding ‘alternative approaches’ and being able to develop enough of a nuanced understanding to apply them in ways that are consistent with the way in which they were developed but that bring that explanatory power into a broader realm.”
As well as strong implications for skills training and capacity building, these categories can be useful for planning research design, recruitment, funding and development of institutional structures to support transdisciplinary projects. For example, they could be used to recruit members of transdisciplinary teams as well as to guide processes embedded in transdisciplinary projects.
What do you think? Do these gel with your experience? Which skills and dispositions do you think can be taught (eg., through courses)? Which are best fostered and stimulated (eg., through appropriate and aligned institutional structures, mentoring and/or practical experiential learning spaces)? How might supervisors, mentors and institutions design their programs and projects to foster excellence in transdisciplinarity? We look forward to hearing your thoughts, experiences and comments!
To find out more:
Fam, D.M., Smith, T. and Cordell, D. (2016). Being a transdisciplinary researcher: Skills and dispositions fostering competence in transdisciplinary research and practice. In, D. Fam, J. Palmer, C. Riedy and C. Mitchell. (Eds.), Transdisciplinary research and practice for sustainability outcomes, Routledge: London, United Kingdom: 77-92.
Biography: Dena Fam is a Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. Over the last decade she has worked with industry, government and community actors to collaboratively manage, design, research and trial alternative water and sanitation systems with the aim of sustainably managing sewage and reducing its environmental impact on the water cycle. Her consulting/research experience has spanned socio-cultural (learning for sustainability) institutional (policy analysis), technological aspects of environmental management. With experience in transdisciplinary project development, she has been involved in developing processes for transdisciplinary teaching and learning, in particular methods/techniques supporting the development of transdisciplinary educational programs and projects.
Biography: Tanzi Smith is a current Director of the Burnett Mary Regional Group for Natural Resource Management in Queensland, Australia and special projects officer at the Mary River Catchment Coordinating Committee. Her research interests include community engagement, natural resource management policy and practice and the application of systems approaches to achieve sustainable outcomes for people and the environment. She holds an Honorary Associate position in the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is a Fellow of the Peter Cullen Water and Environment Trust and a recipient of the Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop Fellowship.
Biography: Dana Cordell is a Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. She leads and undertakes international and national research projects on sustainable food and resource futures. Many projects involve high-level stakeholder engagement to improve societal relevance and foster mutual learning. She co-founded and leads the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative – the first global platform to undertake transdisciplinary research, policy and public engagement to ensure food systems are resilient to the emerging global challenge of phosphorus scarcity. She has been awarded an Australian Eureka Prize for Environmental Research, and listed in the Australian Financial Review/Westpac 100 Women of Influence.