Transdisciplinary environmental research: a review of approaches to knowledge co-production

Frances Harris, Fergus Lyon

Research output: Working paperDiscussion paper

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Transdisciplinary research bridges the traditional boundaries between disciplines and between academia and practice. It is increasingly common, motivated by the intellectual demands of dealing with complex interrelated issues at the food, water, energy, and environment nexus. There are also demands from funders and society at large for relevant research which will have an impact on society. Transdisciplinary teams can generate new knowledge to address complex problems while integrating multiple disciplines and stakeholders. This paper reviews 76 publications on trans-disciplinary research and identifies common approaches and challenges.

Transdisciplinary research challenges conventional approaches within academia which organise knowledge within disciplines. Working with practitioners, lay voices, and the public also challenges fundamental principles of scientific investigation.

Managing transdisciplinary research: The paper sets out three challenges facing those involved in these forms of generation of knowledge:

Theoretical challenges: Framing problems, balancing reductionism and holism, managing theoretical pluralism.

Methodological challenges: Different conceptions of ‘proof’. Experiential vs experimental data, synthesising results from multiple scales, data types and sources.

Practical challenges: Different actors desire different outputs, communication across boundaries, building trust and collaboration

The challenge for those involved in research is to find ways of managing tensions arising within the transdisciplinary process. Firstly, there is a need to the recognise diversity of values, methods and reward systems among participants. Secondly, the selection of research teams has to balance optimising team size and diversity to encourage knowledge creation without overwhelming cognitive distance. This can lead to an inherent paradox in which transdisciplinary research seeks diversity of participants and perspectives, but requires their alignment towards common goals and research outcomes. Thirdly, attention has to be given building trust in collaboration while also being sensitive to how unequal power relations can shape this process (e.g. control of funding, control of outputs).

Developing transdisciplinary researchers: Challenges for academia
The future of transdisciplinary research is dependent on the supply of researchers willing to explore these approaches. There can be tensions between specialisation in mono-disciplinary research vs embracing a transdisciplinary approach that engages with a range of stakeholders and disciplines. Academic progression and promotion favours a mono-disciplinary approach, whereas career pathways for transdisciplinary researchers are less straightforward. This requires further training and mentoring for early career researchers and others involved. This can cover the approaches to transdisciplinary research, the ways of sharing knowledge beyond the academy, alternatives to mono-disciplinary journals, and navigating the balance between conventional criteria of academic quality based on peer review papers, and the demands of the transdisciplinary audience. While a transdisciplinarian may be an alternative form of researcher, they need not be excluded from the systems and structure of academia

Evaluation of transdisciplinary proposals and outcomes
This raises questions for funders of research too. Research policy is increasingly sensitive to the demands for transdisciplinary approaches, those managing such funds need to build their capacity. Such changes also require the development of a cadre of transdisciplinarians with appropriate expertise to review proposals, project reports and academic papers. Defining quality and success is contingent on values, expectations, culture, language and reward structures of all participants, funders and end users. Balancing the views of different stakeholders is a particular challenge.

Towards a transdisciplinary approach
Living with tensions: Transdisciplinary research requires the management of diversity and “tangled agendas”. There is no right methodology, except being aware of tensions.
Formation of team: Teams need to be big enough to be diverse but small enough to build relationships.
Negotiation of the research approach: Develop methods of engaging all partners. Facilitators and stakeholder workshops can be key to ensuring good communication, managing expectations and ensuring equality among all participants.

Knowledge creation: To avoid the pitfalls of a multidisciplinary or multi-stranded approach, transdisciplinary projects ensure integration of all aspects of the research. Allow time and space so that there is room to fail and the opportunity to learn from mistakes. Time for co-reflection and learning should be written into the project.

Outputs: Negotiation is required at an early stage to ensure outputs satisfy all team members, as well as funders.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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