Will Transdisciplinarity Become the New Mantra for Institutions of Higher Education?

The global challenges require learning and collaboration across disciplines, Ella Maria Cosmovici Idsøe argues in this article.

By professor Ella Maria Cosmovici Idsøe, Naturfagsenteret, Universitetet i Oslo

What is transdisciplinarity? Why do we need it? What kind of skills is necessary to be developed for the new generation and how can academic institutions promote this? The present article will discuss these issues.


The challenges that our global society faces – ensuring food, water, and energy security while mitigating environmental changes – require the involvement of a range of stakeholders. In order to address these complex issues, we need economically and socially viable solutions.

These challenges require research that cuts across traditional boundaries (what we can call  interdisciplinary research), but we also need to cut across boundaries between academia and professional practice (transdisciplinary research).

Norwegian research institutions are increasingly embracing an interdisciplinary approach. Centers like the Arctic Centre for Sustainable Energy, Centre for the Science of Learning & Technology (SLATE), Simula Research Laboratory and Centre for Scalable Data Access in the Oil and Gas Industry (SIRIUS) at the Universities of Tromsø, Bergen and Oslo are part of research strategies of these universities. This also applies to thematic priorities.

Even though interdisciplinarity has become a major trend both internationally and nationally, there are still some challenges due to the fact that:

  • Undergraduate and post graduate training is usually disciplinary in nature so students do not develop interdisciplinary skills
  • The universities’ administrative and financial systems can be challenging for promoting interdisciplinary research
  • Research funding and academic publishing have traditionally also been discipline based.

While we still have to deal with these issues, the present reality requires not only to produce knowledge through the combination of insights from different disciplines, but also to strengthen collaboration with different stakeholders – and this requires a transdisciplinary approach.

 What is transdisciplinarity?

The terms multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary are increasingly used in the literature, but are ambiguously defined and interchangeably used. These concepts are the most relevant for understanding growing modes of collaboration between academic disciplines (Darbellay, 2015).

Key concepts for collaborative research between disciplines – inspired by Klein (2014).

Low collaboration High collaboration

shared background,

disciplinary community,


Shared topic,


juxtaposition of

perspectives, autonomy

Integration of disciplinary

insights, cooperation,




collaboration between

academic institutions and

other actors


Disciplinary means working within one single discipline like for instance mathematics or statistics. There is a low degree of openness, interaction and integration.

Multidisciplinarity involves a set of people from several separate disciplines working together, with each exploiting his/her own domain knowledge. It refers mainly to a sequential analysis of a problem by disciplinary experts with few interactions among them.

Interdisciplinarity requires growing interactions and efforts to integrate different disciplinary insights. Some also use the term crossdisciplinarity as synonym to interdisciplinarity, but the idea of collaboration between experts in different disciplines transcending subject boundaries is the same.

In transdisciplinarity, interactions are extended outside academia to solve problems of societal importance through integration of knowledge from different actors.

Transdisciplinary research promotes collaboration between academic research and practice, between different disciplines, and between different types of organisations (Nicolescu, 1999). This is achieved by crossing the boundaries between different disciplines, and through engagement with different types of knowledge: scientific knowledge, lay knowledge and practitioners’ experience.

Transdisciplinarity engages with a wide group of stakeholders; listening to the public voice as well as engaging with policy makers. Participants become co-creators, co-producers of knowledge (Lemos, 2005). While transdisciplinary approaches are sometimes seen as the best way to tackle interconnected issues in the food/energy/water/environment, this doesn’t happen by itself. The new generation is in need of developing a set of skills.

What skills and dispositions are required in transdisciplinary research and practice, in crossing boundaries, sectors and paradigms?

According to Fam et al. (2006) the core skills and dispositions of an exceptional transdisciplinary researcher/practitioner can be grouped into six categories:

  • Critical awareness is a form of reflexive thinking and openness to others’ suggestions
  • Communication is required both to clarify one’s own perspective and to work successfully together with others
  • Commitment needs to be paired with an ability to «challenge the status quo»
  • Connectedness is needed to synthesize diverse perspectives of thought
  • Creativity comes into play in designing novel approaches/methods and thinking laterally through a puzzling challenge
  • Curiosity involves a flexibility and willingness to explore new insights beyond one’s own expertise.

These skills and dispositions should not be seen separately but as interconnected and overlapping characteristics in which a transdisciplinary researcher might aim to develop knowledge and competence. These categories can also be useful for planning research design, recruitment, funding and development of institutional structures to support transdisciplinary projects. For example, they could be used to recruit members of transdisciplinary teams as well as to guide processes embedded in transdisciplinary projects.

It is clear that the new generation should be prepared to conduct action research (socially, inquiry based learning) in order to be able to generate new knowledge, to get a unified overview of a complex field in cooperation with others; they should demonstrate initiative, engagement, drive for change, need to work flexibly and adapt to various kinds of dynamic work environment, organizational forms and cooperative relationships.

They should also exhibit intellectual curiosity and motivation for lifelong learning and be able to steer own learning in a lifelong perspective.

See also part 2 of this article:     » How can academia create a transdisciplinary environment for sustainable development and what are the challenges?»

Selected references:

Fam, D.M., Smith, T. and Cordell, D. (2016). Being a transdisciplinary researcher: Skills and dispositions fostering competence in transdisciplinary research and practice. In, D. Fam, J. Palmer, C. Riedy and C. Mitchell. (Eds.), Transdisciplinary research and practice for sustainability outcomes, Routledge: London, United Kingdom: 77-92.

Klein, J.T. (2014). «Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity: Keyword Meanings for Collaboration Science and Translational MedicineJournal of Translational Medicine and Epidemiology, 2(2): 1024.