Effectively leading interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research organisations

By Global Leaders of Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Research Organisations

Global Leaders of Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Research Organisations details (biographies)

What qualities and skills do leaders of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research organisations need?

Leaders of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research organisations need the qualities that make any leader successful—creativity, humility, open-mindedness, long-term vision, and being a team player. In addition, we identified eight leadership attributes that are specific to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary interactions and that help leaders to be transformative with real world impacts. Leaders need to cultivate:

  1. vision beyond the status quo
  2. collaborative leadership
  3. partnerships
  4. shared culture
  5. communications with multiple audiences
  6. appropriate monitoring and evaluation
  7. perseverance
  8. resources for success.

Vision beyond the status quo. The complexity and scale of the challenges interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research organisations tackle require working and planning at time scales longer than the usual tenure of individual leaders. Leaders, therefore, need the ability and creativity to see beyond existing conditions to imagine what is possible, what is needed, and how to get there.

Collaborative leadership. Leadership is multidimensional. It is important to know how to share leadership and, because of the multiplicity of leadership attributes, a team of more than one leader may be appropriate. Appreciating and practicing different roles, including supporting and championing, is a key cultural habit for leaders of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research organizations.

Partnerships. It is important to consider how and when to collaborate with others. There is a tendency to want to partner with everyone who is interested, particularly where the challenges are complex, and the sense of urgency is strong. However, in our experience, the most effective leaders have developed clear processes for assessing whether and with whom to partner and how to measure success of partnerships. There are transaction costs to engaging partners, as every partnership is a decision to allocate time and money. If not done carefully, partnerships can drain resources, taking intellectual and financial capital from other more fruitful activities.

Shared culture. Culture includes norms and habits of mind that affect problem selection, research approaches, pathways of application and adopted solutions. Culture usually exists in the background, yet to succeed, leaders of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary organizations must promote a new scientific culture to articulate and establish new norms, find ways to reward appropriate collaborative behaviors, and discourage lapses into cultural norms of a narrow disciplinary past. Particularly important is a sharing attitude, including sharing data in clear, well-documented, understandable formats.

Communications with multiple audiences. Communication is respectful listening coupled with clarity of exposition in order to convene and engage across disciplines, as well as excite researchers to participate in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research when doing so is outside their norms. It requires deep respect for other ways of knowing and social practices, especially in engaging with stakeholders.

Appropriate monitoring and evaluation. Properly evaluating interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research remains a challenge. Ambitious goals can be valuable in motivating innovative interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, but appropriate expectations need to be set from the beginning and revisited frequently with internal and external stakeholders to avoid being over-ambitious. A flexible, dynamic evaluation and monitoring framework should assess outcomes, as well as the effectiveness of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary processes, so that teams can learn and develop.

Perseverance. As interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research inherently challenges the status quo, effective leaders must be able to articulate a shared strategy and persevere against a tendency to regress to traditional, disciplinary approaches. Leaders who persevere, and continuously communicate, the value and role of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary programs provide time for skepticism to erode, for disciplinary scientists to develop empathy for other ways of knowing, and for the creation of shared research, education, and outreach products.

Resources for success. Leaders need to be able to attract, manage and maintain resources essential for success in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research organisations, specifically:

  • intellectual resources, recognizing and engaging intellectual expertise outside the disciplinary academic discourse.
  • institutional policies, fostering those that result in collaborative relationships, non-traditional outputs and outcomes, engagement with practitioners, celebration of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work, and career progression from recruitment to promotion.
  • financial resources, developing nimble ways to leverage limited soft-money budgets and experimenting with seed funding for interaction and collaboration.
  • physical infrastructure, recognizing that co-location of researchers from different disciplines sparks serendipity, that co-location with external stakeholders can facilitate the co-production of knowledge and solutions, and that strong technology is essential to engage distant partners electronically.
  • governing boards, that can advocate across their networks and help leaders motivate employees.

It is important to note that for most leaders, these qualities, skills and attributes evolve over time and that learning from failure is a critical component. Further, it is often the case that no individual has all these qualities, making it important to build a team that incorporates the full suite of these abilities.

What has your experience been, either as a leader of an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research organization or working with such a leader? Are there additional qualities and skills that you would add? Do you have examples to share?

To find out more:
Boone, C. G., Pickett, S. T. A., Bammer, G., Bawa, K., Dunne, J. A., Gordon, I. J., Hart, D., Hellmann, J., Miller, A., New, M., Ometto, J. P., Taylor K., Wendorf, G., Agrawal, A., Bertsch, P., Campbell, C., Dodd, P., Janetos, A. and Mallee, H. (2020). Preparing interdisciplinary leadership for a sustainable future. Sustainability Science (Online – open access): http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11625-020-00823-9

Gordon, I. J., Bawa, K., Bammer, G., Boone, C., Dunne, J., Hart, D., Hellmann, J., Miller, A., New, M., Ometto, J., Pickett, S., Wendorf, G., Agrawal, A., Bertsch, P., Campbell, C.D., Dodd, P., Janetos, A., Mallee, H. and Taylor, K. (2019). Forging future organizational leaders for sustainability science. Nature Sustainability, 2: 647-649. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0357-4

See also: https://nitro-oceania.net/global-network/

Global Leaders of Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Research Organisations

The combined image of all the authors can also be opened via this link (JPEG 192KB).

Top row (left to right): Arun Agrawal, Gabriele Bammer, Kamal Bawa, Paul Bertsch
Second row (left to right): Christopher G. Boone, Colin Campbell, Paul Dodd, Jennifer A. Dunne
Third row (left to right): Iain J. Gordon, David Hart, Jessica Hellmann, Anthony Janetos
Second last row (left to right): Hein Mallee, Alison Miller, Mark New, Jean P. Ometto
Last row (left to right): Steward T.A. Pickett, Ken Taylor, Gabriele Wendorf

Biography: Arun Agrawal PhD is Samuel Trask Dana Professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability and Coordinator of the International Forestry Resources and Institutions Program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA.

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD heads the global Integration and Implementation Sciences network and is a Professor at the Research School of Population Health, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia.

Biography: Kamal Bawa PhD is Distinguished Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, USA and Founder-President of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and The Environment, Bangalore, India.

Biography: Paul Bertsch PhD is Science Director at CSIRO Land and Water, and former Queensland Chief Scientist, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

Biography: Christopher G. Boone PhD is Dean and Professor at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, Tempe, USA.

Biography: Colin Campbell PhD is Chief Executive of the James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen, Scotland, UK.

Biography: Paul Dodd PhD is Associate Vice Chancellor for Interdisciplinary Research and Strategic Initiatives at the Office of Research at the University of California, Davis, USA.

Biography: Jennifer A. Dunne PhD is Vice President for Science at the Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA.

Biography: Iain J. Gordon PhD is Adjunct Professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia and formerly Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Tropical Environments and Societies at James Cook University, Townsville, Australia.

Biography: David Hart PhD is Director and Professor at the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, University of Maine, Orono, USA.

Biography: Jessica Hellmann PhD is Ecolab Chair for Environmental Leadership and Director of the Institute on the Environment, as well as the Russell M. and Elizabeth M. Bennett Chair in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, USA.

Biography: Anthony Janetos PhD (deceased) was Director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, Boston University, USA.

Biography: Hein Mallee PhD is a Professor at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Kyoto, Japan.

Biography: Alison Miller is the Deputy Director for Management of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, New York, USA.

Biography: Mark New PhD is Pro-Vice Chancellor for Climate Change and Director of the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Biography: Jean P. Ometto PhD is Director of the Earth System Science Centre of the National Institute for Space Research (CCST/INPE) and Vice-Coordinator of the Brazilian Network on Global Climate Change Research (Rede CLIMA), São José dos Campos, Brazil.

Biography: Steward T.A. Pickett PhD is a Distinguished Senior Scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Millbrook, NY, USA and Director Emeritus of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study Long-Term Ecological Research project.

Biography: Ken Taylor, retired, is former Director of Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Biography: Gabriele Wendorf PhD is the scientific director of the Center for Technology and Society, Technische Universität Berlin, Germany.

5 thoughts on “Effectively leading interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research organisations”

  1. I really enjoyed this article – it proposes a tremendously useful framework for thinking about leadership of inter- and trans-disciplinary research organisations. Inclusive leadership approaches can be the difference between success and failure within interdisciplinary research centres as many directors of institutes do not have academic staff directly reporting to them, and have to use other means to engage academic staff (rather than “command and control”).

    It got me thinking about how appointments are made for leaders of research centres and institutes in universities, and how this might differ from say the head of a school, department or discipline. My question is should senior management within universities be using different or additional criteria, along the lines suggested in the article, for appointing leadership of research institutes? If so, how would this be done?

    P.S. For my part I will be sending this research paper to our VP of Research and Head of College!

  2. What a wonderful article and set of suggestions. Thank you for the work. I would suggest you consider the specific discipline of foresight for the vision entry, along with a capacity for change management to not only see beyond the status quo but to create actions to arrive beyond the status quo.

    • Thanks Jim, extremely valuable points. We’re glad you enjoyed the post & the papers we have recently published on the subject of leadership of inter/transdisciplinary organisations. Some of the foresighting tools that have come from the work of e.g., Shell, and the change management processes and metrics, have certainly been important to our organisations. These will be particularly important as we transition to a “living with-Covid new normal”.

      • Thank you Iain. You touch on one thorny question for the foresight community–metrics and how to assess the particular value for a specific organizational initiative. Jim


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