Over the weekend, Joern Fischer wrote a criticism of transdisciplinary research. I was very eager to read it because it is something I have been wondering about over the last few months too. I began commenting on his blog, but, as my comment grew longer, I thought it is perhaps a better idea to flesh out my thoughts into a full post. Overall, I agree with Joern’s misgivings, but I would go even further to suggest that he was perhaps too forgiving towards transdisciplinary research.
While you should definitely read Joern’s original post, I’ll summarise his main points here. He listed three shortcomings of transdisciplinary research. First, co-defining problems with many stakeholders often leads to a shallow definition of the problem. Second, some sustainability issues have no directly-interested stakeholders or the values of decision-makers might differ from the wider population. Lastly, many stakeholders may be uninformed about certain key problems.
But rather than dismissing transdisciplinarity completely, Joern argued that its gist is still relevant to sustainability science:
“Deep down, transdisciplinarity is about respecting non-research stakeholders, respecting their knowledge, engaging with them, and helping them do better through one’s research.”
I suppose he is right, but with the caveat that respecting non-research stakeholders is not the same as addressing every one of their concerns. Moreover, there are two – even more serious – shortcomings of transdisciplinarity that, I believe, are eroding our quest for sustainable environmental management.
Training sustainability researchers
Firstly, the push towards transdisciplinary research as fundamentally changed the way we train students in sustainability science; to their detriment, I believe. All over the world, there are now professional masters programmes in environmental management, natural resources management, conservation leadership etc. [Disclaimer: I actually teach in one such programme]. Don’t get me wrong, these are useful courses, but they assume that the student will develop a deep scientific scepticism by some indirect process of diffusion.
For example, in these modern transdisciplinary courses, students will receive basic training in ecology, climate science, resource economics, environmental law and conflict resolution. However, it is absurd to claim that they are ecologists, meteorologists, economists or lawyers. Nevertheless, it is so easy for many of the graduates from these programmes to overestimate their knowledge in these specialised fields.
This is a well-known psychological bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Ironically, the less someone knows about a topic, the more likely they are to overestimate their own skills in that same topic. Moreover, increasing their skills and knowledge through specialised training actually reduces the likelihood that they overestimate their own ability.
I argue that transdisciplinary training programmes actually risk creating a entire generation of over-confident researchers with a very narrow knowledge-base.
My second qualm with transdisciplinarity is the way it devalues the importance of clearly set priorities. If the whole complex system is a priority, then nothing is actually a priority.
Here in South Africa, for example, our government believes in the two-birds-with-one-stone approach to environmental management. Most, if not all, environmental initiatives must simultaneously address a socio-economic problem as well. The flagship Working for Water program produced jobs by harnessing the unemployed to remove alien vegetation from our waterways. We also have a Working on Fire program that aims to manage wild fires more effectively, while also creating jobs. More recently, the War on Leaks campaign hopes to reduce water wastage by training unemployed youths to manage water more effectively.
Of course, these are all well-meaning programmes with amazing potential, but we don’t live in a perfect world. If, for instance, one of these programmes creates many jobs, but fails to address the underlying environmental issue, is that programme a success or not? Transdisciplinary science would suggest that the programme is successful if the system as a whole improved. Which begs the question, should the Department of Environmental Affairs (or the Department of Water and Sanitation) spend its budget on creating jobs without necessarily fixing the underlying environmental problem? I don’t think it should.
So, I agree with Joern Fischer’s conclusion that respecting the values and contribution of various stakeholders is a good thing. That much of transdisciplinary research should be encouraged. However, I remain sceptical of any work that is not deeply grounded in theory or lacks clear priorities.
I think interdisciplinary research is a much more promising route toward environmental sustainability. It includes cross pollination between disciplines and interaction between stakeholders. It also avoids skimming over complex issues because it is deeply grounded in several academic disciplines. Moreover, interdisciplinary solutions must optimise several different attributes of a system at the same time rather than mistakenly focussing on the averaged attributes of the system as a whole.
As such, I think we should focus of training people with T-shaped skills, where their academic expertise is deeply rooted in a single academic discipline (the vertical line of a capital letter T) after which they develop a general understanding of other disciplines (the horizontal line in the letter T).
Environmental problems are complex and difficult to solve. They need deep understanding and critical thought if they are to be solved. Every now and then a simple transdisciplinary solution might solve a problem caused by an emergent property of a system, but, more often than not, I believe that complex problems require complex solutions.