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.

Linking learning and research through transdisciplinary competences

Community member post by BinBin Pearce

BinBin Pearce (biography)

What are the objectives of transdisciplinary learning? What are the key competences and how do they relate to both educational goals and transdisciplinary research goals? At Transdisciplinarity Lab (TdLab), our group answered these questions by observing and reflecting upon the six courses at Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD levels that we design and teach in the Department of Environmental Systems Science at ETH Zurich, Switzerland.

Six competence fields describe what we hope students can do with the help of our courses. A competence field contains a set of interconnected learning objectives for students. We use these competence fields as the basis for curriculum design. Continue reading

Using the arts and design to build student creative collaboration capacity

Community member post by Edgar Cardenas

Edgar Cardenas (biography)

How can undergraduate and graduate students be helped to build their interdisciplinary collaboration capacity? In particular, how do they build capacity between the arts and other disciplines?

In 2018, I co-facilitated the annual, 3-day Emerging Creatives Student Summit, an event for approximately 100 undergraduate and graduate students from 26 universities organized by the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities. Students’ majors ranged from the sciences, engineering, music, arts, and design.

The aim of the summit is to give students an opportunity to collaborate on projects that incorporate creativity and the arts. Continue reading

Leading large transdisciplinary projects

Community member post by Sanford D. Eigenbrode, Lois Wright Morton, and Timothy Martin

Sanford D. Eigenbrode (biography)

What’s required to lead exceptionally large projects involving many dozens of participants from various scientific disciplines (including biophysical, social, and economic), multiple stakeholders, and efforts spanning a gamut from discovery to implementation? Such projects are common when investigating social-ecological systems which are inherently complex and large in spatial and temporal scales. Problems are commonly multifaceted, with incomplete or apparently contradictory knowledge, stakeholders with divergent positions, and large economic or social consequences.

Leaders of such very large projects confront unique challenges in addition to those inherent to directing interdisciplinary efforts: Continue reading

Overcoming a paradox? Preparing students for transdisciplinary environments

machiel -keestra_jan-2018
Machiel Keestra (biography)

Community member post by Machiel Keestra

How can we adequately prepare and train students to navigate transdisciplinary environments? How can we develop hybrid spaces in our universities that are suitable for transdisciplinary education?

These questions were considered by a plenary panel, which I organised and chaired at the International Transdisciplinarity Conference 2017 at Leuphana University, Germany. Three major educational requirements were identified:

  • long-term collaborations with businesses, as well as non-governmental, governmental and community organisations
  • teaching particular dispositions and competencies
  • preparing students for intercultural endeavours.

Continue reading

Transkillery! What skills are needed to be a boundary crosser?

Community member post by Dena Fam, Tanzi Smith and Dana Cordell

dena-fam_2
Dena Fam (biography)

What skills and dispositions are required by researchers and practitioners in transdisciplinary research and practice in crossing boundaries, sectors and paradigms?

The insights here come from interviews with 14 internationally recognized transdisciplinary researchers and practitioners, chosen from a diverse range of research and practice-based perspectives.

tanzi-smith
Tanzi Smith (biography)

Here we focus on:

1) skills for specific tasks such as facilitation of a meeting, crafting a well-written report, and communicating effectively across disciplines; and,

cordell
Dana Cordell (biography)

2) dispositions, attitudes, orientations and temperaments of an effective researcher/practitioner, i.e., as a way of being.

 

Six categories of skills and dispositions

The core skills and dispositions of an exceptional transdisciplinary researcher/practitioner can be grouped into six categories, illustrated in the figure below. Continue reading