What is Transdisciplinary Research?
The terms ‘multidisciplinary,’ ‘interdisciplinary’, and ‘transdisciplinary’ are all used in the context of collaborative scientific research that both leverages and benefits from multiple perspectives. Multiple definitions exist for each term but there is generally agreed that if they were placed in a ranked order from least integrated to most, that order would be multidisciplinary => interdisciplinary => transdisciplinary.
The need for this type of effort is often prevalent in research targeting long-term influences on global grand challenges (e.g. NAE Grand Challenges (NAE, 2019) or UN Sustainable Development Goals (2018)). Grand challenges such as these are broad, attracting effort from researchers in a variety of disciplines. As such, collaborative or team research efforts can be referred to as ‘convergent’ (NRC, 2014) when research outcomes result from the mixing of research efforts from disparate fields of study. Researchers find themselves at this nexus via unique pathways that are tied to their origin in their home disciplines. Indeed new disciplines may be discovered at these interfaces with molecular biology (NRC, 2014) as one example.
Transdisciplinary research takes more effort to achieve than the other approaches, as mentioned by Stock and Burton (2011). In reviewing the literature on transdisciplinarity, several common characteristics emerged.
- A diverse set of disciplines, as well as stakeholders or other non-academic expertise, is engaged in an integrative, convergent, mutual learning (co-learning) process and all contributions are valued equally.
- There are the intent and appropriate follow-through in integrating the resulting knowledge not only into the scientific body but also into problem-solving, practical application, governance, or policy.
- The knowledge created has the potential to rearrange the boundaries around disciplinary silos, leading to new questions, theories, methods, or conceptualizations.
Lang et al. (2012) offered the following definition of transdisciplinarity:
Transdisciplinarity is a reflexive, integrative, method-driven scientific principle aiming at the solution or transition of societal problems by differentiating and integrating knowledge from various scientific and societal bodies of knowledge.
Why should we engage in Transdisciplinary Research?
Today’s society faces many grand challenges that are complex, affect large sectors of society, require diverse skill-sets, poorly constrained, and involve ill-defined metrics (Gould, 2010). Tackling such complex issues requires the involvement of many stakeholders and perspectives, different types of expertise (technical/academic, experiential, contextual/cultural), and a desire among all to achieve meaningful progress toward a solution. Among the scientific community, this requires not only a diversity of disciplines working together but the development of a two-way dialogue between science and society.
Transdisciplinary science has the potential to address these grand challenges, but conducting this type of science requires that researchers develop additional skills and knowledge beyond their technical expertise.
The INFEWS-ER was created to provide opportunities to develop and practice the skills needed for transdisciplinary science.
-  Gould, M. (2010). GIScIence Grand challenGeSHow can research and technology in this field address big-picture problems? ArcUser, Fall, pp. 64-65. Retrieved from: https://www.esri.com/news/arcuser/1010/files/geochallenges.pdf
-  Lang, D. J., Wiek, A., Bergmann, M., Stauffacher, M., Martens, P., Moll, P., … Thomas, C. J. (2012). Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: Practice, principles, and challenges. Sustainability Science, 7(1), 25–43. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-011-0149-x
-  NAE. (2019). Grand Challenges—14 Grand Challenges for Engineering. Retrieved December 12, 2019, from NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering website: http://www.engineeringchallenges.org/challenges.aspx
-  NRC. (2014). Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
-  Stock, P., & Burton, R. J. F. (2011). Defining Terms for Integrated (Multi-Inter-Trans-Disciplinary) Sustainability Research. Sustainability, 3(8), 1090–1113. https://doi.org/10.3390/su3081090
-  (2018). The Sustainable Development Goals Report: 2018 (p. 40). Retrieved from United Nations website: https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/files/report/2018/TheSustainableDevelopmentGoalsReport2018.pdf