Challenges to science-policy-society interactions in transdisciplinary research

By Oghenekaro N. Odume, Akosua B. K. Amaka-Otchere, Blessing N. Onyima, Fati Aziz, Sandra B. Kushitor and Sokhna Thiam

1. Oghenekaro N. Odume; 2. Akosua B. K. Amaka-Otchere; 3. Blessing N. Onyima; 4. Fati Aziz; 5. Sandra B. Kushitor; 6. Sokhna Thiam (biographies)

Why is transdisciplinary research that aims to co-produce knowledge across academic disciplines, policy contexts and societal domains often so difficult? What are the key challenges that need to be overcome?

We identified five key challenges when we analysed five projects implemented in nine African cities which were part of the Leading Integrated Research for Agenda 2030 in Africa (LIRA) program (Odume et al., 2021).

Challenge #1: Conceptual threshold crossing

Science-policy-society interactions require active engagement of diverse actors, often with different discursive language and epistemic backgrounds. Translating academic discourse into accessible everyday language can be challenging. In the same vein, policy and societal actors use discourse unfamiliar to academic actors.

Conceptual threshold crossing in terms of intellectual, ontological, and cognitive transformation is particularly challenging when projects are not just about understanding problems or raising awareness, but about true co-production of knowledge and co-ownership of the resulting outcomes.The challenge is exacerbated:

  • as diversity increases. The more diverse the academic disciplines, policy contexts and societal domains of the participants, the greater the conceptual thresholds that have to be crossed
  • when past experience in integrative research projects is limited. The less exposure participants have had to the other sectors, the harder it is to cross the conceptual thresholds.

Challenge #2: Resource-use intensity

Inadequate availability of resources such as time, human resources and funds can pose a significant challenge. The frequency and intensity of engagement between the science, policy and societal actors is costly in terms of scheduling of meetings and finding venues for such meetings, as well as time. It is often difficult to schedule meetings that suit all critical actors. Project implementation can therefore be slow. Further, trying to find common ground, which often shifts as projects progress, can impede the pace of project implementation.

Challenge #3: Power differentials, values, and ethics

Science-policy-society interactions have inherent power differentials. Academic actors, for example, are epistemically powerful in the academic discourse of projects, whereas policy actors are influential in determining whether project outcomes get to be used in the policy arena.

The influence of power and diverse values becomes even stronger in projects implemented in contested spaces. This requires tactful balancing of different interests, values, and power dynamics. Particularly important is to ensure that the voices of less powerful actors are not only captured, but also reflected in project implementation and outcomes.

Challenge #4: Walking the last mile

We use the analogy ‘walking the last mile’ to illustrate the importance of ensuring that discontinuity and participation fatigue are adequately managed. This ensures that the interests of critical actors in projects are sustained from co-identification of research problems through co-production and dissemination.

Our experience suggests that discontinuity and participation fatigue are inevitable. Therefore, building enough redundancy into projects across the science, policy, and society domains is an important strategy for coping with and adapting to discontinuity. By redundancy, we mean embedding in the projects multiple actors who could play the same or similar roles, so helping to minimise the negative effects of discontinuity of people or ideas.

Challenge #5: A history of academic and practice silos

For academics who have not previously participated in transdisciplinary research projects and knowledge co-production, integration is often a particular challenge. The integration challenge can manifest as conceptual, practical, and/or methodological.

Policy actors often also have a history of working in silos, with little collaboration across different policy sectors. There can also be lack of collaborations across different levels of government, such as local and national.

Strategies for overcoming the challenges

Challenges related to conceptual threshold crossing require reflexive learning and openness.

It may be useful to tackle the challenges of resource-intensiveness, history of academic and practice silos, and discontinuity and participation fatigue together, as these raise the imperative for making resources available for co-production, as well as the importance of capability development and incentivising practitioners and academics involved in co-production for science-policy-society interactions. Specifically, to mainstream science-policy-society interactions through co-production we suggest:

  1. addressing academic and practice silos through adequate capability development and incentivising academics and practitioners by engaging them from project inception through implementation and evaluation
  2. stimulating co-production through adequate resources, for example, project funding and mentorship
  3. addressing discontinuity of both ideas and people through redundancies within the project teams and processes.

To balance interests, values, and power asymmetry inherent in co-production spaces, we suggest identifying sources of inherent power and the context of the exercise of power. It is also useful to make explicit the often-implicit assumptions, values, and expectations held by the actors regarding participation in a project.

Concluding questions

Do the challenges we have described resonate with your experience? Have you identified additional or different challenges? Are there other strategies for overcoming the challenges that you have found to be effective?

To find out more:

Odume, O. N., Amaka-Otchere, A., Onyima, B., Aziz, F., Kushitor, S. and Thiam, S. (2021). Pathways, contextual and cross-scale dynamics of science-policy-society interactions in transdisciplinary research in African cities. Environmental Science and Policy, 125. (Online – open access) (DOI):


Oghenekaro Nelson Odume PhD is an Associate Professor and Director of the Institute for Water Research at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa. His key interests are transdisciplinary research in complex social-ecological systems, policy engagement and water resource management.

Akosua B. K. Amaka-Otchere PhD is a Lecturer at the Department of Planning, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana. Her key interests are transdisciplinary work, policy engagement, monitoring and evaluation, and gender analysis in regional and urban planning, energy, and environment.

Blessing Nonye Onyima PhD is a dedicated Senior Lecturer at the Sociology and Anthropology Department, which is housed within the Faculty of Social Sciences at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, located in Akwa, Nigeria. She actively engages in qualitative ethnographic research,  exploring diverse themes that encompass culture, health, gender, environment, conflict, and transdisciplinary research.

Fati Aziz PhD is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, USA. Her research interests are natural resource management and stakeholder engagement, with a primary objective of bridging the gap between scientific knowledge and practical implementation.

Sandra Boatemaa Kushitor PhD is a population scientist based at the Ensign Global College, Kpong, Ghana and Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa. She applies theoretical and methodological perspectives from the social sciences to understand population health in her research focusing on three distinct yet related areas of population health: population shifts, public health nutrition and governance.

Sokhna Thiam PhD is an Associate Research Scientist at the African Population and Health Research Center, Dakar, Senegal. Her research focus is on investigating the impacts of global environmental change on health with particular attention to climate change and its impact on health. Her broader interests are in applying transdisciplinary and systems thinking approaches on research evidence generation, policy and community engagement.

5 thoughts on “Challenges to science-policy-society interactions in transdisciplinary research”

  1. Dear Colleagues!
    It is important to say that the problems that you are trying to solve within the Leading Integrated Research for Agenda 2030 in Africa (LIRA) program have played a role in the prime cause of transdisciplinarity.

    You may be interested to know that the prime cause of transdisciplinarity was formulated during the Working Symposium on Long-Range Forecasting and Planning in (1968), which was organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Jantsch, an Austrian philosopher and astrophysicist, was one of the Rome Club founders who had a hand in the description of this prime cause. The participants of the symposium unambiguously spoke in favor of the problem solving, long-range forecasting, planning, and control of social and economic development of the society by creation and use of the global approach. The participants of the symposium expressed assurance that within the limits of the global approach, a deep synthesis of disciplinary knowledge and different initial data should occur which allows forming the comprehensive worldview. Thus, the following was recorded in the final symposium declaration:

    Planning must be concerned with the structural design of the system itself and involved in the formation of policy. Mere modification of policies already proved to be inadequate will not result in what is right. Science in planning today is too often used to make situations which are inherently bad, more efficiently bad. The need is to plan systems as a whole, to understand the totality of factors involved and to intervene in the structural design to achieve more integrated operation. All large, complex systems are capable of some degree of self-adaptation. But in the face of immense technological, political, social and economic stresses, they will have to develop new structures. This can easily lead to grave social disturbances if the adaptation is not deliberately planned, but merely allowed to happen.

    Many of the most serious conflicts facing mankind (sic) result from the interaction of social, economic, technological, political, and psychological forces and can no longer be solved by fractional approaches from individual disciplines. The time is past when economic growth can be promoted without consideration of social consequences and when technology can be allowed to develop without consideration of the social prerequisites of change or the social consequences of such change. (Jantsch, E. (1969). Perspectives of planning. Proceedings of the OECD working symposium on long-range forecasting and planning. Bellagio, Italy, (27th October – 2nd November 1968). Paris, OECO Publ., 7-8.

    In our opinion, the key term in this fragment of the Declaration is the term “worldview”. It is important to recall that from a physiological point of view, a worldview is a specific mega-construction of neurons in the brain. The activity of this design provides a certain composition of neurohormones. These neurohormones support a certain image of the world picture in the brain. This picture of the world determines the context in which the results of transdisciplinary research and solutions to complex problems are accepted or rejected.

    Scientists, politicians, specialists, ordinary citizens have different worldviews (different mega-construction of neurons in the brain). When solving current problems that do not form a complex multifactorial problem, a different worldview is not an insurmountable obstacle. However, if the problems merge into a complex multifactorial problem that requires a systems transdisciplinary solution, then different worldviews will play the role of an objective insurmountable obstacle. Simply put, scientists, politicians, specialists, ordinary citizens form their own contexts, meanings, goals and objectives that cannot be combined in one solution. This insurmountable obstacle also reduces the effectiveness of transdisciplinary research, which is carried out by a group of scientists and specialists from different disciplines. To get around this obstacle, every transdisciplinary study uses a new method.
    However, let’s return to the worldview…

    It is known that the scientific worldview is formed due to long-term study at the university. In the process of this training, a basic (scientific-ideological) mega-construction of connections in the brain is formed. Therefore, if we want to remove the objective worldview obstacle that gives rise to all the problems of transdisciplinary research, then it is proposed to do some work. It is necessary to organize in universities the training of students in universities for a new profession – a systems transdisciplinary generalist. It is these specialists who will have the necessary level of worldview, which will allow them to:
    – unify and generalize the knowledge of scientific disciplines, the current political situation and the experience of the deep people;
    – to rethink a complex multifactorial problem within the framework of a single worldview;
    – use a systems transdisciplinary disciplinary methodology to solve each complex multifactorial problem;
    – offer methods and technologies for solving complex multifactorial problems;
    – and also, conduct a risk analysis of the proposed solutions to such problems.

    More details about this way of solving the problems of transdisciplinary research can be found in the documents:
    Information letter – Invitation to participate in international systems transdisciplinary projects in the field of higher education and sustainable development (2023-2030). (Online – open access):
    Passport of the international project “Formation of a systems transdisciplinary worldview in the higher education system (2023-2026)”. (Online – open access):

    We invite you, and in your person, the universities of African countries to join these international transdisciplinary projects.

    • Dear Vladimir,
      We are grateful for the depth of information you have shared with us. We will certainly engage with these materials.

  2. Dear Kitty,
    Thank you very much for your comments on our article. We are grateful. With regards to the three suggestions there is indeed a ‘world within them.’ We are in the process of providing more information about them by examining the mediums of communication that enables or hinders silos and co-creation and co-production. This work is in progress and we will be happy to share with you when it is ready.

  3. First of all, I love the fact that 6 people in 5 countries partnered on this article – how astounding and how wonderful. Kudos! Second, I greatly appreciate the fact that you’ve also connected across two big divides: between disciplines and research-practice. These accomplishments seem vitally important to me, because the human race lives on one planet and faces huge challenges that we can’t even get our arms around in the absence of systems thinking and working with each other. There’s a world within your three suggestions; I’d love it if you would say more about them in the future.


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