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A future for transdisciplinary research?

We are grateful for the excellent and engaging responses and comments received. We wish to thank all those who took time to read, share views and criticisms. This new text is not a response; more an opportunity to re-frame some of our thoughts considering the comments received, and re-articulate others more clearly.

The responses received confirm our initial message that for science to contribute to the complex and often contentious issues of our world, notably those associated to the UN 2030 Agenda, transdisciplinary research needs a step change. This is not to undermine the importance of discovery and focused mode 1 research, rather to point out the need for mainstreaming additional research frameworks. The recent report, Unleashing Science by the International Science Council, ISC, (2021) and the subsequent report by the ISC’s Commission on Mission-Led Science for Sustainability (ISC, 2023) both highlight the need to apply transdisciplinary approaches and the need for the institutions of science to adopt new models of funding and assessing research and researchers in order to reduce the structural barriers to transdisciplinarity. 

One purpose of our paper was to clarify what is meant by transdisciplinary research, as it is a term still often confused with more traditional forms of interdisciplinary research. In doing that it was important to discuss what science is and what it is not. Part one of our paper discusses its attributes and where it can contribute uniquely. But as we point out in part two, science has its limits. Importantly, science does not evolve in isolation from other forms of knowledge systems. Science must interact with them without compromising itself. The third part of our paper argues that while the concept of transdisciplinary research is not new, there are fundamental systematic issues and disincentives impeding researchers from doing it. They exist in funding structures, in universities’ set-up, in disciplinary silos, curricula, etc.  

Supporting scientists seeking TD research 

The comments confirm that there are indeed many individual (humanistic, social and natural) scholars already engaging in transdisciplinary research, notably in Global South countries. We find that particularly encouraging although are wondering why? Is it easier or more tempting to engage in transdisciplinarity in the Global South because the institutional barriers are less firm or petrified than in the Global North; or is the sheer urgency of some of those issues simply calling for novel and innovative research frameworks?  

Be that as it may, what we read in the comments and in the literature is that many individual scientists are more than ready, sometimes already experienced, to take on the challenge of transdisciplinary research. Some of them may use other terms like sustainability science, citizen science, participative research or similar, but essentially, they try to implement the principles of transdisciplinary research. But as soon as this is ascertained, one must also note how they report on problems and barriers along the way. 

Many trans-disciplinary scientists feel constrained by disciplinary boundaries and the “siloes” they and the institutional arrangements maintain. Scholars are trained in a discipline, they teach in this discipline, and their career advancement is typically within that discipline (Caplow 2017; Clark 1989; Stichweh 2003). Universities and research institutions seldom create or provide the incentives to actively engage with non-academic stakeholders and other spheres of knowledge. Scientific unions and academies often reinforce this trend.  

In our view, higher education and research institutions have a responsibility to pave the way for a more positive commitment to transdisciplinary activities within their bounds. This should not only be reflected in abstract strategies but should materialize in concrete offers of education, radical interdisciplinary exchanges, discussions in broad fora, and in support as funding and career opportunities.  

Assessment and funding 

This brings us to the next point: Inadequate standards of evaluation and funding structures. Scientists acquire symbolic capital in the form of peer-reviewed scientific publications, citations, and service in high-level academic committees. Current quantitative (as in bibliometrics) or qualitative (as in peer judgement) standards of evaluation are insufficient evaluation tools for transdisciplinary research.  

A key challenge is the assessment of transdisciplinary research and its outputs. The barriers are clear: the quality and value of transdisciplinary research depend primarily on the process of framing the question, on codesign and stakeholder engagement. These components define both the research process and shape of outputs; they determine whether the research becomes actionable or not.  

Transdisciplinary research needs a different, stepwise scheme of funding. Establishing the partnerships with relevant societal groups and individuals takes time (often years), and then time is needed to agree on a common framing of the problem in pursuit and design a protocol and application for funding. This first phase is intensive and difficult and has a real cost. It cannot be adequately assessed by publications. We suggested that steps towards inclusive co-design with the full range of stakeholders need to be assessed first. The next step includes assessments of how the research partners produce new and relevant knowledge in due recognition of the diversity of potentially relevant knowledge systems and value diversity. The final step is assessing the outputs of research. Who is targeted and reached by the research, and what schemes of governance are promoted to improve the issue at hand? What are the short- and long-term goals which can be realized through the project? Are ethical, political, legal, and administrative constraints duly considered? Are societal conflicts based on values properly addressed? All these considerations extend the purely academic standards commonly used now. 

Knowledge systems for TD research 

One of our main concerns in the paper is to marry the respect for all knowledge systems and value landscapes while not compromising the principles that guide science. Our commentators seem to agree that local and indigenous knowledge systems are often disregarded by scientists, but they are also aware of the difficulties to combine science and other forms of knowledge in practice. The complexity of the issues at stake calls for the respectful collaboration of all partners. The somewhat old-fashioned virtue of open-minded scientific dialogue could open the door to such collaboration between academia and civil society. But in our times of high specialization and competitive research landscape, even the basics of good dialogue can be challenging! Scientific training and professional interests too often act as barriers.  We all are prone to value-based bias, and we all act with some interests as drivers. We cannot totally avoid such bias, but we can try to step in the shoes of others with a different perspective, and then possibly modify our biases. Engaging in transdisciplinary research means making this effort a central point and basis for collaborative work 

Guiding principles in TD research 

Furthermore, transdisciplinary research faces larger ethics challenges than are usually included in ethical guidelines for science. The significant ethical step is moving from human subjects as objects of research to making them equal partners. Simple forms of informed consent just don’t suffice. Other issues are on the table, about who leads the project, who owns its results, who owns the data generated, who has a say on the communication channels to the wider public, how will benefits be shared, and how will conflicts arising in the course of the research be solved? The ethics of transdisciplinary research is not served with checking boxes in a questionnaire; it needs to be a recurrent feature integrated into the fabric of the project. For instance, reciprocity, equity, diversity or shared learning may need to be explicitly embraced as guiding principles (Reed et al 2023; Horcea-Milcu et al 2019). 

Reform to the future of TD research 

These are fundamental issues. Without institutional changes at multiple levels, the promise of transdisciplinary approaches will remain on the margin of the research enterprise. We asked initially if there is a future for transdisciplinary research. We and the commentators have identified significant institutional hurdles and ideological barriers. But we have also indicated that there are possible remedies if we make the effort. Yet the need to accelerate the production and uptake of actionable knowledge is critical.  

And here lies the crux: there is no quick fix! But the systems of science have changed over time, and now is the time for further evolution as we face multiple challenges at scales ranging from local to global.  These are too important for us to leave this arena for discourse to voices of irrationality, post-truth, or cheap rhetoric. We worry that science institutions are not on the course to fully take on that role.  

The system of science can change and adapt to our current societal and global needs, even if they appear discouragingly complex and “wicked”. Our argument is that this change to a larger transdisciplinary practice needs to come if we want our knowledge to be used for change and policies. Science is too important a practice for it to be sidelined by its own barriers. 


  • Caplow, T. (2017). The academic marketplace. Routledge. 
  • Clark, B. R. (1989). The academic life: Small worlds, different worlds. Educational Researcher, 18(5), 4-8. 
  • Horcea-Milcu, A.I. et al 2019. Values in transformational sustainability science: four perspectives for change.  Sustainability Science. 14: 1425-1437. 
  • International Science Council (2021). Unleashing Science: Delivering Missions for Sustainability, Paris, France. International Science Council. DOI: 10.24948/2021.04. 
  • International Science Council (2023) Flipping the Science Model: a roadmap to science missions for sustainability. 
  • Reed, M.G. et al 2023. Guiding principles for transdisciplinary sustainability research and practice. People & Nature,  00: 1-16. 
  • Stichweh, R. (1992). The sociology of scientific disciplines: On the genesis and stability of the disciplinary structure of modern science. Science in context, 5(1), 3-15 
  • Stichweh, R. (2003). Differentiation of scientific disciplines: causes and consequences. 
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