Community of Transdisciplinarians

With great interest and pleasure, I read the discussion paper of Matthias Kaiser & Peter Gluckman. I second their analysis as much as their claim for institutional change. This is no surprise, because my workplace is ETH Zürich’s Transdisciplinarity-Lab. At TdLab we coach students and researchers in tackling sustainability challenges through knowledge co-production.

Community of Transdisciplinarians

However, there is something Kaiser & Gluckman underestimate: Since 20 years and more, scholars who do and reflect on transdisciplinary research (TDR) or similar forms of collaborative research, have formed a community. They meet e.g. at the International Transdisciplinarity Conference, the Conference of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies or of the International Network for the Science of Team Science. These scholars discuss challenges like stakeholder engagement or integration experts in the Australian based Integration and Implementation Insights blog. Members of these communities provide online tools, e.g. (a) to improve collaboration between different disciplines (toolbox dialogue initiative), (b) to find the right tool to address a particular challenge of TDR or (c) explain the top ten tips for transdisciplinary academic careers or for writing a transdisciplinary proposal. Thus, there is a vivid community of ‘transdisciplinarians’, with expertise in navigating different viewpoints and epistemologies and in designing processes of knowledge co-production.

This community is relevant for evaluation, which Kaiser & Gluckman rightly identify as key to strengthen TDR. Such scholars are able to assess the quality of TDR proposals. For instance, they will check whether the first phase of “problem framing” is adequately designed and equipped with enough personal and financial resources. During “problem framing” researchers and societal actors jointly identify the problem, the way(s) to look at it and the research needed to go the next step in addressing it. In a recently funded project of ETH Domain’s strategic area “Engagement and Dialogue with Society” we dedicate the whole first year to this process.

TDR Scholars will also look at the third phase of “exploring impact”. Implementation is often wrongly conceptualised as a linear process of knowledge transfer. This comes with the implicit assumption that if knowledge does not flow, it is the researchers’ fault. In TDR, solutions are rather prototypes that must be tested to check for unintended effects. This is because solutions are based on (a) simplifications of the complex world made during knowledge co-production and (b) theories of how they will change the current situation. Exploring implementation means to test how adequate complexity was reduced and how appropriate the implicit theory of change is. In my understanding, this third phase should be added to Kaiser & Gluckman analysis of the challenges of evaluation.

The institutional challenges Kaiser & Gluckman present are very inspiring and indicate the magnitude of the transformation required. I agree that the general direction will be to diversify the academic system. Being successful in terms of citations is then one possible role in the system. Others should be tenured because they master science-society interactions or because they know how to navigate diverse epistemologies and stakes. This will also change the flow of money. Less money will go into paper writing, reviewing, reading and publishing. More money will go into collaborating with colleagues from other disciplines and societal actors to address societal problems. The outcome of such collaborations will be new networks, trust and slow flows of knowledge and practices that are hard to trace. This might be less countable than citations, but it will connect universities in manifold new ways to the societal system they are part of.


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