Transdisciplinary research is not a solution to environmental problems

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.

Weak prioritisation

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.

2 thoughts on “Transdisciplinary research is not a solution to environmental problems

  1. I largely disagree with this evaluation. These challenges are plausible, but do not reflect my experiences nor my read of the literature on transdisciplinarity and effective problem-solving.

    To be frank, I have seen more evidence that work with “less” expert contribution and more resources disseminated to practitioners is more effective at solving complex problems than evidence that relatively more resources put towards fundamental research is more effective:
    Scheba, A., & Mustalahti, I. (2015). Rethinking ‘expert’ knowledge in community forest management in Tanzania. Forest Policy and Economics, 60, 7-18. doi:

    Shrader-Frechette, K. (1995). Evaluating the expertise of experts. Risk, 6, 115.

    The social manifestations of expertise can also be highly problematic:
    Rampton, S., & Stauber, J. C. (2001). Trust us, we’re experts!: How industry manipulates science and gambles with your future. New York, NY: Tarcher Putnam.

    Of course, no one will when a “applied vs. fundamental” or “academic expertise vs. practical knowledge” debate. Both are necessary. And it would be hard to determine which is “more” important. And of course, we are talking about transdisciplinarity rather than these classic dichotomies. But I personally think that the inability and unwillingness to think outside of one’s discipline, and to think outside of the academic context, is a significantly larger obstacle than people getting too wide and insufficiently deep knowledge. I can’t speak to the possibility of the programs you mention assuming “that the student will develop a deep scientific scepticism by some indirect process of diffusion.” But I do know that an appropriately informed skepticism–and knowledge of–other disciplines has not been widely fostered in the programs I have been part of. There is often a significant inability to understand, or willingness to spend the time to understand, enough of another discipline for truly effective interdisciplinary (or transdisciplinary) work. Because to accomplish these, you need sufficient commonality and shared language to understand each other on a deep enough level that the collaboration is actually more than the sum of its parts, rather than several different disciplinarians studying the same problem and creating largely separate results in each discipline that just happen to share the same study subject. (Lele and Norgaard discuss this, thoug I would call what they are talking about achieving more transdisciplinarity than interdisciplinarity.)

    In my personal development and in the training of my students, I have seen constant fear of the “jack of all trades and master of none”. I have not seen this come to pass very often, and to be certain, I have also seen folks too focused in their specialization to be able to deal with complex problems, because they can’t really see past the edge of their own field. This is not to say that all transdisciplinarians avoid superficiality, or all specialists aren’t able to effectively go beyond their own silo. But it bears some thinking about which one is a larger problem, and looking to some evidence perhaps to corroborate, rather than assuming one or the other is more threatening or dominant.

    But to head off some degree of potential disagreement, perhaps, I should add that not only do I agree that superficial understandings are possible and concerning, but that I do have a specific approach I’ve developed in my advising to address it. It *is* impossible to master any arbitrary number of things sufficiently. My simple suggestion is that we think of a “pi shape” instead of “t shape”: develop relatively deep understanding of two areas, and how they link, giving you practical experience in combining disparate bodies of work and making a general understanding of other disicplines easier from having traveled the connecting path before. We tend to accept this is possible in biochemistry, molecular biology, political economy, biological anthropology, economic philosophy, environmental ethics, ecological economics, etc. I propose that more people need “pi shaped” training in both a social and a natural science, and that the social science much more often needs to *not* be economics (Kai Chan et al. made this point in an article I can’t find this moment.)

  2. Pingback: Training well-rounded and work-ready ecologists | The Solitary Ecologist

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