Funding transformative research: 10 key stages

Community member post by Flurina Schneider

Flurina Schneider (biography)

How can funding programmes maximize the potential of transformative research that seeks to make a real difference? How can funders support a more hands-on approach to societal challenges such as ecological crises? A group of Swiss transdisciplinary researchers and funding-agency staff identified 10 overlapping stages and their key ingredients. The stages are also described in the figure below.

  1. Preparation of the funding programme. From the start, funding programme leaders should seek dialogue with all those concerned with the societal challenge, including decision-makers and affected communities. Only then should they create a formal programme description and announce a call for project proposals—while still leaving room for grantees (those who receive grants) to adapt the framing of problems and goals.
  2. Project proposal elaboration. Transformative research requires teams including academics and societal collaborators from diverse backgrounds. These teams need time to form, build trust, and identify knowledge gaps and priorities for change. Ideally, teams will include senior scientists versed in collaborating beyond academia, but such people remain rare.
  3. Funder interactions with applicants. The competitive nature of research funding often leads funding programme staff to keep applicants at arm’s length. But nurturing a young field like transformative science often requires a more hands-on approach. This might include organizing training in transdisciplinary research, and giving pre-proposal advice to applicants about how to strengthen their methods or teams.
  4. Project selection. This crucial stage determines the parts – projects, subtopics, approaches, and budgetary framework – that will build the greater sum of the research programme. Therefore, emphasis must be placed on evaluation criteria and procedures that do justice to the transdisciplinary character of research proposals. The projects selected should contribute to both scientific and societal aims. A mix of projects is crucial, with those taking a narrower disciplinary approach complemented by others involving an exchange with society.
  5. Research activities. Once the projects begin and research gets underway, project leaders may need to adapt their studies in response to local people’s concerns or the realities of day-to-day work with collaborators from diverse disciplines and social and cultural backgrounds. Funding programme staff can aid this process and ensure wider programme coherence in several ways (see 6, 7, and 8 below).
  6. Joint agenda setting. Ideally, programme leaders will hold workshops early on that enable approved projects to jointly fine-tune targeted problems and goals with a view to synthesizing their eventual findings or impacts. Researchers can be encouraged to maximize synergies, for example by addressing different parts of the same global value chain. As the goals of the selected projects might not fully fit the predefined programme goals, the latter can also be adapted accordingly.
Conceptual model of a transdisciplinary research funding programme involving 10 key stages (Schneider et al., 2019)
  1. Networking and synthesis. As research progresses, it is helpful for funding programme heads to periodically convene researchers from all the projects to ensure continuing exchange and relationship building. Special ‘synthesis projects’ can be launched to ensure that transformation-oriented activities occur at the programme level, such as public information campaigns or the creation of widely accessible tools for disseminating results and visualizing data.
  2. Funder interactions with projects. Funding programme leaders have several ways to enhance projects as the research progresses. One example is using annual reports to foster self-reflection among the project teams on their progress towards scientific and societal goals, necessary changes required in the project, adaptation to real-world contexts, and lessons from transdisciplinary collaborations. Another example is that targeted training can be offered to foster skills in areas that science curricula often overlook, such as communication and public engagement. Finally, project visits by programme staff can help clarify remaining concerns.
  3. External communication. Transdisciplinary research is ideally suited to accessible knowledge products, including decision-support tools (eg., scenarios for climate change and adaptation), policy briefs, apps, and videos. Products should respond to societal collaborators’ needs and desires. Funding programme leaders should also strive to create spaces for mutual learning by all those concerned with the societal challenge. These might include discussions bringing together scientists, policymakers and the public. Funders should also develop ‘successor structures’ to carry on the programme’s work.
  4. Programme conclusion and impact evaluation. Societal transformations take time. As well as mandating final project reports, funding programme leaders should fund longer-term programme-level evaluations. These follow-ups can provide valuable information about what works or doesn’t work to effect transformation.

Transformative science requires transformative science policy. We highlight how the architecture of funding programmes could be enhanced to support research that prioritizes societal impacts. What do you think? Do you have experience with funding practices like those outlined above? If so, how effective are they? Do you have other suggestions for how funding programmes could better support transformative change?

To find out more:
Schneider, F., Buser, T., Keller, R., Tribaldos, T. and Rist, S. (2019). Research funding programmes aiming for societal transformations: Ten key stages. Science and Public Policy, scy074: 1-16. (Online – open access) (DOI):

Biography: Flurina Schneider PhD is an integrative geographer and head of the Land Resources Cluster at the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern, Switzerland. Her research focuses on sustainability, justice, and human well-being in relation to land and water resources. She is particularly interested in how science, knowledge co-production and participation can contribute to sustainability transformations..

Improving transdisciplinary arts-science partnerships

Community member post by Tania Leimbach and Keith Armstrong

Tania Leimbach (biography)

Collaborations with scientists have become a major focal point for artists, with many scientists now appreciating the value of building working relationships with artists and projects often going far beyond illustration of scientific concepts to instead forge new collaborative frontiers. What is needed to better “enable” and “situate” arts–science partnerships and support mutual learning?

Our research looked at the facilitation of arts–science partnerships through the investigation of two unique collaborative projects, developed at two geographically distinct sites, initiated by artist Keith Armstrong. One was enacted with an independent arts organisation in regional Australia and the other at a university art gallery in Sydney, Australia. Continue reading

Idea tree: A tool for brainstorming ideas in cross-disciplinary teams

Community member post by Dan Stokols, Maritza Salazar, Gary M. Olson, and Judith S. Olson

Dan Stokols (biography)

How can cross-disciplinary research teams increase their capacity for generating and integrating novel research ideas and conceptual frameworks?

A key challenge faced by research teams is harnessing the intellectual synergy that can occur when individuals from different disciplines join together to create novel ideas and conceptual frameworks. Studies of creativity suggest that atypical (and often serendipitous) combinations of dissimilar perspectives can spur novel insights and advances in knowledge. Yet, many cross-disciplinary teams fail to achieve intellectual synergy because they allot insufficient effort to generating new ideas. Here we describe a brainstorming tool that can be used to generate new ideas in cross-disciplinary teams. Continue reading

Strengthening the ecosystem for effective team science: A case study from University of California, Irvine, USA

Community member post by Dan Stokols, Judith S. Olson, Maritza Salazar and Gary M. Olson

Dan Stokols (biography)

How can an ecosystem approach help in understanding and improving team science? How can this work in practice?

An Ecosystem Approach

Collaborations among scholars from different fields and their community partners are embedded in a multi-layered ecosystem ranging from micro to macro scales, and from local to more remote regions. Ecosystem levels include: Continue reading

Toolboxes as learning aids for dealing with complex problems

Community member post by Stefan Hilser

Stefan Hilser (biography)

How can toolboxes more effectively support those learning to deal with complex societal and environmental problems, especially novices such as PhD students and early career researchers?

In this blog post, I briefly describe four toolboxes and assess them for their potential to assist learning processes. My main aim is to open a discussion about the value of the four toolboxes and how they could better help novices.

Before describing the toolboxes, I outline the learning processes I have in mind, especially the perspective of legitimate peripheral participation. Continue reading

Building a global community to improve how complex real-world problems are tackled

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

This is the third annual “state of the blog” review.

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

As the blog moves into its 4th year, how well is it achieving its goals? Is it succeeding in sharing concepts and methods across the multiple groups addressing complex real-world problems – groups including inter- and trans- disciplinarians, systems thinkers, action researchers and implementation scientists, as well as the myriad researchers working on complex environmental, health and other societal problems, who do not necessarily identify with these networks? Is it providing a forum to connect these disparate groups and individuals? Is it helping to build an international research community to improve how complex real-world problems are tackled? Continue reading