Integrative Pathways 44-2 Addressing Societal Challenges

Column: Interdisciplinary Publications of Note

Julie Thompson Klein and Rick Szostak

This column calls attention to new and recent publications, including books, articles, reports, and other works on inter- and trans-disciplinarity. It presents brief descriptions to alert readers to works meriting further attention, rather than full review. We collaborate on selection of all pieces and editing for final versions, but the author order rotates to indicate the primary author for a particular entry.

This entry in our column highlights two recent reports from authoritative bodies that position inter- and trans-disciplinarity at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century.
Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (2020). Addressing Societal Challenges Using Transdisciplinary Research. OECD Science, Technology and Industry Policy Papers. No. 88. Paris: OECD Publishing.

The OECD’s 80-page single-spaced policy paper was commissioned by the organization’s Global Science Forum, with the aim of examining transdisciplinary research (TDR) at the project level. Echoing numerous other accounts, the authors distinguished “interdisciplinary” integration of existing disciplines from “transdisciplinary” co-creation of knowledge involving representatives of both academic specialties and stakeholder communities. They also stressed the urgency of societal problems requires transdisciplinary solutions that are frequently international or global in nature. Many of the 28 case studies are based in Europe, but the report includes projects in the US, Latin America, Africa, Japan, Korea, and India. In the aggregate, they warrant scaling up TDR to become a “mainstream modus operandi for research.” 

The policy paper incorporates analysis of policy initiatives and good practices along with responses of Principal Investigators to an online questionnaire and interviews. The authors contended “All TDR is solution-oriented,” while aligning the concept with the academy’s “3rd mission to promote innovation and societal benefit.” This report also joins others in treating boundary crossing as complementary to disciplines, not supplanting them. Familiar obstacles appear as well, though the authors highlighted four areas. First, complex societal problems require contextual knowledge, not universal prescriptions. Second, awareness of inter- and trans-disciplinary processes is as important as expertise in a particular discipline or field. Third, capacity building spans not only individual and team levels but also institutional readiness. Fourth, short-term ad hoc responses do not guarantee sustainability of even the most promising models. 

Technopolis Group (2021). Stimulating Interdisciplinary Research: International Study on Policies Focused on Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Science and Higher Education. The Hague, Adviesraad voor wetenschap, technologie en innovatie.

The Technopolis Group’s 2021 account lacks the global scope of the OECD’s policy paper, but it is an in-depth 85-page one-and-a-half spaced comparison of efforts to stimulate interdisciplinary research (IDR) in Germany, Finland, the UK, and at the broad level of the European Union (EU), with the goal of drawing insights for the Netherlands. While contending there is no single, accepted definition of interdisciplinarity, the report echoed the widespread connotation that IDR brings together expertise and knowledge, skills and competences, information and data from different disciplinary fields. It further aligned transdisciplinarity with interactions among research, industry, and society.

Comparable to the OECD policy paper, this report contends complex societal problems are primary catalysts for interdisciplinarity (and by extension transdisciplinarity). It also joins other accounts in maintaining it is a means to an end rather than a goal in and of itself. Accounts from individual countries and the EU level document heightened interest over the past decades in science-policy circles. Even while advocating interdisciplinarity, though, it is not always an explicit criterion in funding calls and decisions, rather general exhortations to address complex scientific and societal problems. Not surprisingly, familiar challenges also appear though six were prominent across countries: (1) responding to the higher complexity and longer timeframes of IDR; (2) finding suitable research partners across disciplines; (3) providing appropriate IDR funding; (4) navigating different disciplinary languages, data, and cultures; (5) having pertinent skills and leadership qualities; and (6) easing risks in research careers. 

Implications

The two recent reports, combined with insights from prior accounts, document five overarching lessons. First, inter- and trans-disciplinarity are both pluralities, encompassing multiple activities and forms but requiring awareness of core processes of integration and collaboration. Second, context matters. Variations appear in institutional missions, sizes, resources, and countries. Collaborative work also entails configurations of expertise assembled for a given purpose. Third, the track record of change is characterized by modification and accommodation, despite heightened calls for inter- and trans-disciplinary approaches. Fourth, long-standing interest in epistemology continues, but problem solving looms larger today as their raison d’etre. Fifth, the relationship of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity is increasingly viewed as complementary, not oppositional. In an earlier report for the League of European Research Universities, Wernli and Darbellay* predicted that research-intensive universities, in particular, will become more diverse than their 20th ct. counterparts. The most successful ones will be able to cultivate competencies for both generating basic knowledge and grappling with societal needs. The main challenge becomes creating a “virtuous cycle” between disciplines and interdisciplinarity. The same may be said of transdisciplinarity.

* Wernli, D. and Darbellay, F. (2016). Interdisciplinarity and the 21st century Research-intensive University. Leuven, Belgium: League of European Research Universities Office.  

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