What motivates researchers to become transdisciplinary and what are the implications for career development?

By Maria Helena Guimarães, Olivia Bina and Christian Pohl

1. Maria Helena Guimarães (biography)
2. Olivia Bina (biography)
3. Christian Pohl (biography)

If disciplines shape scientific research by forming the primary institutional and cognitive units in academia, how do researchers start being interested in and working with a transdisciplinary approach? How does this influence their career development?

We interviewed 12 researchers working in Switzerland who are part of academia and identify as ‘transdisciplinarians’.

They described seven types of motivations:

  1. Individual ethics, especially a desire to improve society and contribute to the advancement of the common good.
  2. Concern about real-world problems, particularly a desire to engage with societal issues that do not primarily emerge from disciplinary journals or academic discourse alone.
  3. Search for fulfillment, especially the possibility of making a difference in their own lives and those of others.
  4. Wanting to bring together theoretical and practical perspectives, as well as communities undertaking complementary but independent work.
  5. Realising that individual disciplines do not provide sufficient insights to deal with complex problems and wanting to go beyond them.
  6. Wanting to step “out of the box” and being attracted to transdisciplinarity as a transgressive and risk-taking activity.
  7. Desire to be reflective, connected to a range of research interests and to connect across a range of fields.

The following quotations from the interviewees illustrate these motivations.

quote number one - guimaraes post - motivations-TD-researchers

Career development

Most interviewees defined their trajectory in transdisciplinarity (ie., their entry into transdisciplinarity and their continuing development within it) as something that just happened and was linked to a specific way of perceiving science.

Most did not present a well-established career path in transdisciplinarity. Further they considered that the CV (curriculum vitae) profiles that they had developed so far meant that well-established career paths were not attainable.

Those who were professors described a dual role, one focused on disciplinary excellence and the other on transdisciplinarity. A few of the young researchers aimed at developing a career in academia and were therefore intermingling their transdisciplinary activities with disciplinary knowledge production.

Generally, professors and supervisors did not advise young researchers to move into transdisciplinarity because of its impact on career advancement or of the lack of supervision for inter- and trans- disciplinary research compared with disciplinary projects. Most of the challenges described were related to the lack of recognition for transdisciplinarity within the academic system. Therefore, independent of the individual’s age or years spent working in academia, the general perception was a lack of opportunities to progress in academia.

Within this discussion, some interviewees suggested creating a discipline, a field, or a community focused on the formalization of transdisciplinarity, as well as on its development. Others viewed this track as a threat to the inherent openness of transdisciplinarity to other disciplines.

The following quotations capture the above points.

Do these experiences match your own? What other motivations for entering transdisciplinarity are you aware of? What impacts on career development have you seen?

To find out more:
Guimarães M. H., Pohl C., Bina O. and Varanda M. (2019). Who is doing inter- and transdisciplinary research, and why? An empirical study of motivations, attitudes, skills, and behaviours. Futures, 112, 102441. Online open-access (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2019.102441

Biography: Maria Helena Guimarães PhD is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Mediterranean Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (ICAAM) in Évora University, Portugal. In her research group, she coordinates the line of research dedicated to transdisciplinary processes and co-construction of knowledge. Her research interest is the practical application of knowledge co-construction and the use of systems thinking for the sustainable management of natural resources.

Biography: Olivia Bina PhD is Principal Researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon in Portugal and Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science. She coordinates the Urban Transitions Hub at her Institute. Her research focuses on change and sustainable futures, on the critique of “green” growth and the limits to growth, on connectedness between humans and nature, and notions of scarcity.

Biography: Christian Pohl PhD is co-director of the Transdisciplinarity Lab of the Department of Environmental Systems Science (USYS TdLab) at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. He completed his habilitation at the University of Bern. His research interest is the theory and practice of transdisciplinary research as a means for sustainable development.

12 thoughts on “What motivates researchers to become transdisciplinary and what are the implications for career development?”

  1. What a delightful array of thoughtful observations and comments. Perhaps another motivation comes from complexity theory, where small changes in initial conditions can lead to large changes downstream. For those in the futures and foresight discipline, taking a narrow view of the future is sure to mask important forces. Additionally, a transdisciplinary approach expands the innovation terrain.

    • Dear Jim, thank you for this additional reflection linking to the field of futures and foresight. Your reference to complexity theory as a great vehicle for widening our horizons is certainly helpful. In general I guess today (but maybe always) “taking a narrow view” of pretty much anything is a high risk strategy. The issue for us is whether academia can navigate the fine line between depth and breadth of what/disciplines and who/actors/voices – both pedagogically and as a workplace where one builds a career.

  2. Yes, it seems that experiences differ from researcher to researcher, from context to context. Great that we can share these cross-organisational, cross-country td-experiences here!

  3. Thanks for these insightful and quite recognizable reflections and quotes! I’m wondering whether the interviewees were generally somewhat older, not having been trained inter-/transdisciplinary as more and more students are nowadays? In my ID/TD students I see a somewhat ambivalent attitude: majoring in or doing a master in a discipline, they’re relieved to find a disciplinary identity, yet at the same time sticking to their ID/TD basis because of its real-world orientation and engagement. What your interviewees and my students share, though, is a system of funding, tenure and promotion, etc. that is not fully prepared to handle such dual-trained academics, unfortunately. Any advice your interviewees have in that respect for those starting academics – or not really?

    • Dear Machiel, Thank you for your comment and questions.
      The youngest interviewee was 31 years and trained as an engineer. We had two more interviewees in with 33 and 36 years old, one trained as an environmental engineer and the other one in biotechnology. All of the interviewees were already working and all except one did a PhD, we did not include students.
      Regarding training, all interviewees agreed that some kind of anchoring is needed, some consider that such anchoring needs to be discipline-base, while others consider that a theme or a specific community could also serve the purpose of creating an identity that could be ID/TD development.
      Between these two perspectives what, in my opinion, is interesting is the fact that some interviewees recommended students to go into IT/TD after a well grounded career in one disciplines, while others did not show such a career track, and questioned if creating and caring for ID/TD process might also be in the horizon as a new form of specialized knowledge. For more details on the recommendations given to students by the interviewees please have a look at the article.
      I am mostly involved in research and not so much in teaching but I supervise master and PhD students. In my opinion it is really important to include, since the bachelor level, disciplines of philosophy of science and critical thinking. I notice that current students between 25-30 years old are bombarded with knowledge from several disciplines and lose direction. I wonder if a stronger emphasis on how disciplines are built, the history of science, its achievements, limitations and context would help them find their own way.
      Once again, thank you for the interest and questions

      • Thanks for the reply, Helena, with more relevant insights! I do appreciate that anchoring nowadays is not necessarily discipline-based but might also be domain-based: sharing a problem domain with colleagues from different disciplines can indeed be sufficient for establishing a career. Yet without such a focus, it would be difficult, I think.

        With regard to establishing a discipline and/or career, focused less on a particular domain or discipline but rather on the ID/TD process itself: this is the challenging and interesting aim of Integration and Implementation Sciences, spearheaded by Gabriele Bammer who is also editor of this valuable blog. I am sympathetic to that idea and do believe that it is important that there are interdisciplinary team members with expertise in establishing & facilitating integration and implementation, I also think that these are so much dependent upon the specificities of a problem domain, that I wonder whether one can have such an i2S field in general.

        Indeed, most of us working in philosophy of science also specialize in particular domains of science nowadays as it requires deep familiarity with a field/discipline to work on ‘its’ philosophy and we cannot gain that familiarity with many different fields. Nonetheless, I can only agree that it is important for interdisciplinary students to learn about philosophy of science and critical thinking in order to work towards integration – as I’ve argued in a blog here sometime ago (https://i2insights.org/2019/02/05/metacognition-and-interdisciplinarity)

        • Thanks Machiel. Like you, I expect that Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) specialists will gravitate towards working in one area of application. A useful reference point for for i2S is statisticians and, as with your example of philosophers, individual statisticians also tend to work on a particular problem domain. But the important issue is that there is a body of statistical/philosophical/i2S knowledge that every statistician/philosopher/i2S specialist (respectively) can draw on and enrich with their findings.

          • Hello Machiel and Gabriele,
            Thank you for the insights.
            I also agree that jumping from different fields can be difficult. I wouldn’t dare. My theme is natural resource management and I have worked with terrestrial, coastal and marine systems. As my background is on marine biology I have the baseline knowledge that allows a fast establishment of a fruitful dialogue with my colleagues. Along the years I see transversal challenges in natural resource management independently of the specific topic. It’s becoming easier to grasp were my integration expertise can add up to the existing knowledge and competences.
            I always wonder how far would I have gone if, during my bachelor/master, I would have had access to topic such as the ones we are referring to.
            Gabriele, we need to organize a short course on Integration and Implementation sciences (i2S) in Europe…I offer Portugal!
            All the best

            • Thanks Gabriele and Helena for these continuing thoughts on how we are increasingly facing an interesting yet also challenging navigation between a specialization in a particular field or problem domain on the one hand and some form of ‘disciplinary’ (cf. philosophical or I2S or biological) expertise on the other. I think that our academic programs could do much better in preparing our students for such navigation.

  4. Thanks for these deep insights in individual motivations and career paths linked to transdisciplinary (td) research! Sharing very similar motivations and experiences, I would add that some academic organisations are more susceptible to transdisciplinary approaches than others. Smaller and more problem-focused universities (e.g., agricultural universities, universities of applied sciences or land grant universities) might be more open to transdisciplinary approaches or even encourage their faculty to address societal issues in an inter- and transdisciplinary way. In these academic organisations, td-researchers might feel less excluded from career paths – particularly if they are able to critically reflect and exchange on their transdisciplinary approaches in international publications.

    • Dear Marianne,
      Thank you for your interest and comment.
      In my experience and context (Portugal) I don´t see this distinction between organizations. I have always worked in natural resource management since 2005 with coastal and marine systems, and since 2012 with land and farming systems. Along the years I see an increase in the interest with TD research mostly because of the political movement towards multi-stakeholders approaches in EU funding schemes for research. This does not mean that there is an increase in TD considering all the theoretical and specialized background already existing. In addition, I don’t see research wanting to research about TD but rather include TD in their routines, get the funding and developed research as businesses as usual.
      The bright side of this sad perspective, is that it opened a door to new approaches and a slow change in mindsets. Today I see more researchers taking TD seriously and wanting to include TD as research object as well.
      In my experience what I see that makes a differences are the individuals in the different academic organization I have worked with and where I am currently based. I am fortunate enough to have encountered academics along my career that support my scientific endeavor in TD, and help me create the conditions needed to do science with TD. I don’t feel fully integrated but I also not fully exclude. Today I am fortunate to work increasingly in teams getting their hands dirty in TD processes.
      All the best


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