The triumphs and trials of transdisciplinary research: reflections on the un-disciplining of disciplines

The International Science Council led a parallel session on transdisciplinary research at the recent Sida Science Days in Stockholm, May 2019. Presentations from two programmes – Transformations to Sustainability (T2S) and Leading Integrated Research for Agenda 2030 in Africa (LIRA 2030 Africa) – were profiled at both the programme level as well as the project level. Dr Zarina Patel reflects on the session.

The opportunity to reflect on what it takes to enable and to do transdisciplinary research – by the programme managers and the researchers respectively – provided at-the-coal-face insights on the structural and institutional conditions that are needed to allow transdisciplinary research to achieve its potential.  This blog takes its inspiration from observations that the practice of transdisciplinary research could be more accurately described as “un-disciplined” research or “transgressive research”.

It stands to reason that the current context in which research is conducted, which favours and supports the hegemony of disciplinary research, will require structural and institutional change to support transdisciplinary research. Whilst transdisciplinary research is no longer new, it remains novel in sustainability research. It is gaining popularity in funding calls, however, there is very little evidence-based reflection on what it takes to do transdisciplinary research in a landscape that is constructed to support disciplinary research. Similarly, there is little reflection on the institutional requirements of allowing interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research and systems to flourish.

By engaging with the researchers and programme managers, it is clear that the context within which transdisciplinary research occurs challenges numerous assumptions about research, including who does the research, where research is conducted, how outputs are valued, and how research is supported. By discussing the unprecedented complexity underpinning each of these research context factors, this blog points to some of the changes needed in order to manage, organize, fund and support transdisciplinary research more effectively.

The first deviation from disciplinary research lies in who conducts the research. The academic researcher is not given pole position in transdisciplinary research – the objective is to ensure that research partners are equal partners in the research process, and that all knowledge is valued equally. Diverse knowledge communities have been engaged in the projects, ranging from civil society groups, to policy communities and to the private sector. These knowledge communities do not have equal access to power structures however, and all require different points of entry and engagement.

Techniques including citizen science, participatory methods, policy advocacy, amongst others have been invoked in the different projects. The success of these partnerships is based on building trust, which takes a really long period of time. Whilst there is an acknowledgement at the programme levele of the need to invest time and resources in building trust with communities to jointly frame research agendas, it is an ongoing process that requires investment throughout the duration of the project, particular at the beginning. Trust is a fragile notion, and as such is fundamentally a risk in the development and execution of projects. The role of the researcher in navigating these fragile relationships is paramount.

Whilst 2-3 years seems like a long period of time for a project, the disproportionate amount of time spent on building relationships versus productive output-based engagements is often the invisible work of transdisciplinary science. And yet, the success or failure of the engagements rests on this delicate work, which must be done with care. Nurturing relationships is key. Researchers need to be able to judge the points in the research that require knowledge co-production, and the points at which the different knowledge partners need to perform their respective roles, as required by their institutions or communities. Maintaining institutional integrity, whist remoulding institutions to reap the benefits of transdisciplinary engagements, is a fine balance.

The second digression from disciplinary research lies in the sites of research. The laboratory for transdisciplinary research has numerous guises, and the metaphorical table around which diverse researchers come together has numerous shapes and forms. In transdisciplinary research, all partners are researchers, so the research field is situated where the partners are. Working in this way requires an unlearning of disciplinary practices with their clear separation between subject and object. The roles and responsibilities of partners change in transdisciplinary engagements, however, managing the expectations built up with community partners in that all-important beginning period remains a challenge.

Learning between partners occurs when partners cross the boundaries between their knowledge domain sites. These third spaces (sometimes called liminal spaces), created through alternative researcher configurations include: researchers in community spaces, civil society using the tools of disciplinary research to create their own science and evidence, academic researchers embedded in local authorities, amongst others. Transdisciplinary research is experimental, where the sites, objects and tools for research become interchangeable, without clarity on path dependencies. The approach is therefore emergent, less formulaic and prescriptive than disciplinary research, thus blurring the boundaries between science and society in creating “science for society”. Some may consider this form of research as chaotic, however, it reflects the complexity that it is attempting to address.

How research emerging from transdisciplinary research is valued is the third area requiring reconfiguration. Given the relational nature of transdisciplinary research, this work is value-based, requiring much care and investment in relationships. The significance and relevance of the academic paper for research partners is not always shared, necessitating the production of a range of other knowledge products or boundary objects around which relevance for partners can cohere – including, for example, policy briefs, comics, documentaries, op eds, amongst others. Given that all partners are players in the research, emphasis on narrow measures based on academic outputs are misplaced. Research for societal benefit requires a much wider range of metrics to assess the relevance and value of the partnerships, learnings and its outcomes and outputs. Similarly, projects need to be appropriately resourced to produce a range of knowledge products.

Much investment has been made at the programme levels to ensure capacity development to facilitate academic researchers working in different configurations with research partners. It is still difficult however, to draw direct attribution for effective partnerships to training interventions, for example. To have the most effective, impactful outcomes, prior knowledge of the personalities and persuasions of researchers needs more careful attention. There are numerous levels at which projects must be effective – meeting the global goals of the 2030 Agenda, local, national and regional goals, programmatic objectives, and the needs of knowledge partners and funders. Given that relevance means very different things to different partners, and at different scales, assessing effectiveness is a moving target, requiring much more thought to tailoring measures of effectiveness more closely with a focused set of indicators that reflect these multiple levels and players.

To address this, the LIRA programme has embarked on a learning study, which informs the reporting and self-reflection exercises conducted by project. In this way, projects are constantly revisiting their assumptions and course correcting to achieve their goals. Traditional evaluation after the projects are over, based on criteria that were not built into the objectives of projects and programmes, are destined to miss the point.

Mindful of these deviations from the ‘norm’ in the practices of transdisciplinary research, the roughly 30 participants at the session at the Sida Science Days discussed some important issues that gave insights into the areas where academic and funding institutions are currently intervening. To invoke Foucault, it is clear that there are systems of discipline and punishment at play when working in undisciplined ways. The forms of surveillance exercised by the academy direct the spotlight on narrow criteria based on a particular set of assumptions about both who creates knowledge and what constitutes robust knowledge.

In short, the role of the researcher diversifies in transdisciplinary research – beyond being scientists or social scientists – researchers need to be skilled in building partnerships and trust, and in being policy entrepreneurs and project and financial managers. Resourcing of such a wide range of functions and expertise must be part of the widening of the angle of the assessment spotlight.

When it comes to the how of research, working in transdisciplinary ways requires crossing of boundaries between departments and beyond the academy. Furthermore, knowledge must be academically robust, but also politically and socially robust.  Working across different institutional and disciplinary cultures in university and policy bureaucracies requires structural change. However, these changes will not happen automatically. Transgressing established systems needs to be planned for and executed in deliberate ways if we are to harness the palpable energy and commitment displayed by researchers and programme managers, along with the societal benefits and successes being delivered through these projects and programmes. The intention is not to replace disciplinary research with transdisciplinary research, as they have different functions and value, but knowing when to invoke which epistemological approach to research is critical for ensuring that institutions are able to support both forms of research.

For more information on the LIRA programme, click here.

For more information on the T2S programme, click here.

Dr Zarina Patel is a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town. Dr Patel’s transdisciplinary engagement with urban transitions has been shaped by international collaborations through LIRA and most recently through the World Economic Forum’s Global Futures Council on Cities and Urbanisation.

The ISC thanks panellists Dr Million Belay, Dr Philip Osano and Dr Iokiñe Rodríguez for their inputs to the session. 

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISC

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