By Gabriele Bammer
What are the indicators that transdisciplinarity has been institutionalised? How close is it? What still needs to be done to achieve institutionalisation?
Transdisciplinary teaching and research are becoming more common in universities and a range of research organisations. So how will we know that transdisciplinarity is an integral and accepted part of the research and higher education scene, nationally and internationally?
I suggest that there are two primary criteria:
- The expertise required to undertake transdisciplinary research is recognized and codified
- Acknowledged transdisciplinary experts are given an equal voice with established disciplines when research and higher education policy are made and when funding is allocated.
On these criteria, it is fair to say that transdisciplinarity is not even close to being institutionalised. As colleagues and I have suggested in How can expertise in research integration and implementation help tackle complex problems? we are only beginning to define the expertise that transdisciplinarians have. In addition, when transdisciplinarity is discussed at the research policy and higher education tables, it is rare for those involved to be acknowledged transdisciplinary experts. Similarly, acknowledged transdisciplinary experts are not yet routinely involved either in setting the policies of funding organisations or in reviewing relevant grants.
Nevertheless, there is growing acknowledgement of the importance of transdisciplinarity, along with funding for projects that tackle complex problems. Those interested in leveraging these advances to achieve institutionalization must:
Why are these actions necessary and how can they best be achieved?
Transdisciplinarians are not alone in seeking to tackle problems, especially complex societal and environmental problems, by:
- integrating knowledge from multiple disciplines and stakeholders
- using that integrated knowledge to improve the problem under investigation.
Such work is undertaken by many research teams only some of which identify with the transdisciplinary community. Others identify with systems thinking, action research, post-normal science, implementation science, integrated assessment, team science and similar communities among the 24 or so identified in Finding expertise in research integration and implementation to tackle complex problems.
This fragmentation has important consequences in the scholarly and political domains:
- from the scholarly perspective, the fragmentation makes it hard to find previous work, for example on methods and processes for stakeholder engagement or integration. This leads to reinvention of the wheel, rather than building on, refining, contextualizing or otherwise improving existing methods and processes.
- politically, the lack of critical mass leads to on-going marginalization of this kind of work, with accompanying powerlessness.
Innovative thinking is needed about how the different communities (transdisciplinary, systems thinking, action research, etc.) can unite in common cause while maintaining the benefits of their individual histories and emphases.
In Do we need to discipline interdisciplinarity? I have suggested a common underpinning discipline – Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) – that would provide a common identity, as well as a mechanism for sharing concepts, methods and processes.
Such a unified body of researchers and educators needs structures and processes to define who they are and what they do, along with sanctions for who can and cannot speak for them.
Traditional ways of organizing, especially through professional associations and networks, can be powerful. However, one consequence of the fragmentation discussed above is that there are more than 60 relevant professional associations and networks already in existence. Many are quite small and again a mechanism is needed to unite them.
[Author note December 2022: the information about professional associations and networks provided when this contribution was published has been relocated to the ITD-Alliance website: https://itd-alliance.org/professional-associations-and-networks/.]
Perhaps more important is to formalize a structure bringing together leaders, especially leaders of centres and other organisations that foster transdisciplinary, systems thinking, action research and other related ways of dealing with complex societal and environmental problems. Such leaders’ organisations can press for seats at the policy and funding tables and can select suitable representatives, with legitimacy in the eyes of their peers, to take up those seats.
Efforts are underway to establish a global leaders group (https://nitro-oceania.net/global-network/), along with regional groups, with an active group already existing in the Oceania region (https://nitro-oceania.net/).
When research, education, funding and related policies are formulated, the established bodies of transdisciplinary and related researchers and organizational leaders need to get involved, for example by making submissions and participating in national and international enquiries.
Local, national and international crises can also provide opportunities for such bodies to contribute in unique ways. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, has provided opportunities for epidemiologists, immunologists and economists to shine. Do transdisciplinarians and others interested in complex societal and environmental problems also have something to offer, for example on planning for post-pandemic life?
Such responses – to policy formulation and crises – provide an opportunity to demonstrate the strengths of transdisciplinarians, systems thinkers, action researcher and others. Developing responses can also help to build the community and give it a profile among policy and funding decision makers.
Carving out adequate space for transdisciplinary and related endeavours in the research, higher education and funding spheres requires established disciplines to cede ground, because there will always be limitations in the number of researchers and graduate students, space in curricula and amount of available funding. Institutionalization will therefore probably need to be fought for.
Useful tactics include:
- using charm, humour and strategic thinking rather than aggression
- forming strategic alliances with cross-disciplinary research teams tackling a wide range of complex societal and environmental problems in sustainability, migration, health care and so on
- showing up when there are opportunities or important debates
- insisting that those speaking for transdisciplinary and related endeavours are suitably qualified (although allies from other areas should also be made welcome)
- avoiding inaction and doing the best possible in the circumstances, in other words not letting “the perfect be the enemy of the good”
- finding the low-hanging fruit, ie., opportunities for early and easy wins.
Institutionalising transdisciplinarity requires its practitioners to co-construct a big picture vision. This blog post aims to provide some starting ideas.
In addition, it is important to honour and respect the steps transdisciplinarians are already taking, for example to establish and maintain courses, to support funders, and to develop professional associations, as such initiatives provide the bedrock on which institutionalization is built. Those who have pioneered transdisciplinarity have often fought draining battles for even the smallest gains.
Finally, it is important that transdisciplinarians look after each other, especially when we disagree, and that we strive to find meaningful accommodations of our diversity.
What do you think? Do any of these ideas resonate with you? Where do you disagree? Do you have additional suggestions or experiences to share?
This blog post is based on a keynote address presented at the online symposium “Transdisciplinarity as an institutional challenge for universities” June 15-16, 2021. For more information see: https://www.transdis.tu-berlin.de/menue/aktuelles/fachtagung_transdisziplinaritaet_als_institutionelle_herausforderung_fuer_universitaeten/
Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is a professor at The Australian National University in Canberra in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns, and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change.