Georgina Aboud: Transdisciplinary approach: a brave new world?

Development Policy26 Aug 2009Georgina Aboud
This week The Broker is blogging from the Towards Knowledge Democracy conference in Leiden, The Netherlands. Conference Blogger Georgina Aboud will report back from the event which invites participants to share visions and experiences on how to deal with the challenges and possibilities that occur on the interface between science, politics, society and the media.

What I love about attending international conferences is the exposure to new concepts, and one that has been buzzing about at this conference is ‘transdisciplinary approach’. Roland Scholz, the Chair of Environmental Sciences: Natural and Social Science Interface and chief evangelist of the concept, explains transdisciplinary as a joint process initiated by non-academia (government, industry, public, non-government organisations) or scientists on an ‘ill-defined’, societally relevant, real-world problem which includes challenging scientific questions. It usually consists of joint leadership, joint problem definition and joint responsibility, with different actors taking different but complementary roles. Non-academia takes responsibility for the decisions which are linked to the process, and provide the unbiased context, while science takes responsibility for the scientific quality of their products.

Much of the talk in the workshop centred on increasing the legitimacy of the approach among non-believers, through both changing institutions and creating greater currency for the approach. In current academic set-ups, both in the Netherlands and in the United States, great importance is placed on being highly trained in one discipline, and this system is the easier way to promotion. Roland Scholz and others stressed the importance of grounding transdisciplinary approaches into academia, where PhD students would be trained in different fields and learn high quality research methods. Other suggestions included getting transdisciplinary articles into well respected journals, which Schloz argued was very possible.

How do we get business on board?

One of the key issues in this approach is getting all the actors actively involved. Chris Peterson talked about the difficulties of encouraging business to the table, mainly stemming from their reluctance to debate: they are naturally inclined to want action rather than talk. Interestingly, when business feels threatened, often after an embarrassing exposure, they are much more likely to want to discuss the larger sustainability issues, for both business and altruistic reasons.

Is it new and is it any good?

The enthusiasm from the panel was evident and there was a real sense that this kind of approach could dramatically alter the way that knowledge is framed and used: it is not for collecting dust, but for solving real life problems. I’m not so sure about the newness of it, though. Some participants suggested it was what they were doing naturally in their work anyway, and it had simply been given a name. Others mentioned similar concepts such as the multi-stakeholder approach.

It was also assumed that this approach was a ‘good’ thing. One participant suggested that it needed to be examined with more rigour, as it wasn’t actually creating new knowledge. While it would have been interesting to have debated this to a greater extent, Florien Weil made the interesting point that there are problems which science cannot answer, and transdiscipline allows room for rethinking and reshaping the relationship between science and society.

It was a fascinating, absorbing session and this is a concept that I would like to explore further. In some ways, it reflects institutional systems that are ill-equipped to cope with the complexity of today’s problems; however, for it to gain greater currency, it seems to need greater exploration and exposure as to why this is the brave new approach to plump for.