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“Transdisciplinarity” (A Rose) by any other name would smell just as sweet

‘Looking at the Future of Transdisciplinary Research’ lays out an ambitious agenda for science. It argues that even though working within disciplinary siloes has been immensely productive for science in the past three centuries, the complex wicked problems of the world today call for science to become ‘transdisciplinary’. I agree with this overall redirection of science systems. Transdisciplinarity meaning codesigning and coproducing knowledge with stakeholders and resulting in real-world impacts is urgently needed. The challenges of the Anthropocene demand such impactful work by scientists.

As this report was being written I was conducting interviews and research for another study on “Organizational and management challenges of Transdisciplinary Sustainability Sciences for the Anthropocene.” This study is based on examining organizational arrangements that have made long-term, large-scale, impactful science programs successful. The case studies I looked at included NASA’s International Space Station (ISS), China’s Belt & Road Initiative Science (BRIS) and India’s National Innovation Foundation (NIF). I am also examining university-based global sustainability research programs coordinated by Future Earth and UNESCO’s BRIDGES programs.

Science programs at ISS, BRIS and NIF have very practical goals. They are operating in complex multi stakeholder environments or ecosystems. Managers of these programs don’t see their mandate as producing knowledge, but rather producing activities measurable by results: they are action agents charged with producing concrete results. For example, the purpose of the ISS is creating and maintaining a space station capable of doing scientific experiments in space. BRIS managers are seeking to build infrastructure and facilities of the Belt & Road Initiative. NIF managers seek to identify and valorize grassroots innovations in the traditional knowledge sector. These action pursuits produce new knowledge and this knowledge crosses and integrates many disciplines but the most important outcomes of the pursuit are actions and impacts. Interestingly, the programs do not define themselves by the knowledge they produce, nor is ‘knowledge’ the main goal of the program. It is as if the new knowledge is almost a byproduct of accomplishing their practical goals. Most of the science managers I spoke to, did not use the term “transdisciplinary” to describe what they are doing. Some of them referred to inter or multidisciplinary inquiries, but on the whole they did not describe their work in terms of disciplines at all. However, their work is clearly transdisciplinary in nature.

Transdisciplinarity moniker is much more popular among academic researchers working in universities in networks such as Future Earth and BRIDGES. Many different terms show up in place of transdisciplinary science such as convergence research, team science, collaborative science, inter and multidisciplinary, translational science, action science, holistic science and even just plain ‘science’ plus additional terms in Chinese and Hindi. By centering on the disciplinary, the term may inadvertently be devaluing action, agency and impacts. To move science forward we need it to influence actions, and have impact on real-world problems. It does not matter if we call that transdisciplinary.

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