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

By Maria Helena Guimarães, Olivia Bina and Christian Pohl

Author - Maria Helena Guimarães
Maria Helena Guimarães (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?

Author - Olivia Bina
Olivia Bina (biography)

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

Author - Christian Pohl
Christian Pohl (biography)

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.

Ten steps to make your research more relevant

Community member post by Christian Pohl, Pius Krütli and Michael Stauffacher

Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research often aims at broader impact in society. But, how can you make such impact happen?

A researcher might face a number of questions (s)he was not necessarily trained to address, such as:

  • How can I be sure that my research question will provide knowledge relevant for society?
  • Who in this fuzzy thing called society are my primary target audiences anyway?
  • Are some of them more important for my project than others?

Over the last several years, we developed 10 steps to provide a structured way of thinking through how to improve the societal relevance of a research project, as summarised in the table below.

When working with researchers to plan their impact, we usually go through the 10 steps in a workshop format, as follows:

  • Before each step we provide a brief account of the underlying theory and clarify why the step matters.
  • Then we ask the researchers to complete a concrete task, reflecting on their own project
  • Researchers usually also discuss their reflections with each other and learn about different approaches to address societal relevance.
  • They also discuss the tasks with us, but we are not necessarily the ones who know the right answers.

The ten steps work best in a context where a research project leader, for example, provides detailed project knowledge and the whole group is interested in discussing the societal impact of research.

In our experience, the ten steps trigger reflection on one’s own research and allow for fruitful coproduction of knowledge in the project team on how to improve the societal relevance of projects.

What techniques have you used to plan, and reflect on, making your research socially relevant?

Christian Pohl (biography)

Pius Krütli (biography)

Michael Stauffacher (biography)

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Transdisciplinarity: Learning together to teach together

Community member post by BinBin Pearce, Carolina Adler and Christian Pohl

BinBin Pearce (biography)

Are there innovative methods that enable students to frame and confront the complexity of real-world problems in the context of sustainable development? Which learning approaches help students engage with design thinking to understand a particular system, and also to start thinking about responsible solutions? Which approaches enable students to reflect on their own actions, as well as become aware of the importance of diverse stakeholder perspectives and how these play out in real-world contexts? Continue reading