What effects does transdisciplinary sustainability research have?

Research project TransImpact publishes special issue of the journal ‘Environmental Science & Policy’

Transdisciplinary research – for instance within sustainability research – can provide targeted support for the solution of complex societal problems. This is possible as transdisciplinary research includes – across disciplinary boundaries – knowledge gained from experience and from everyday life and thus expands the cognitive process incorporating this specific yet not scientific information.

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Abstraktes Netzwerk (©iStock by Getty Images: naddi)
Networks (©iStock by Getty Images: naddi)

Now the question arises which is the best way for transdisciplinary research to advance its societal effects? A newly published special issue of the journal ‘Environmental Science & Policy’ is dealing with the topic in general and particularly addresses this question. The special issue “Transdisciplinary Sustainability Research – Linking research processes and outputs to societal effects” of the journal ‘Environmental Science & Policy’ was initiated by scientists from the research project TransImpact. The online publication comprises two articles presenting central results from the project TransImpact as well as twelve more articles by international guest authors. The special issue provides a unique compilation of articles that illuminates the topic of the effects of transdisciplinary research from different perspectives. 

A special merit of the transdisciplinary research approach lies in the fact that it is not only an “observer” but is able to describe and analyse socially complex problems and to contribute to their solution. Transdisciplinary research aims to achieve socially robust, accepted and viable results that have the potential to contribute to societal change. In this context, we have to deal with the following questions: How can transdisciplinary sustainability research unfold effects within society and science and what are the central categories for describing different types and scale dimensions of effects? How can challenges of assessing different types of effects be mat, considering also the risks and unintended effects of transdisciplinary research? And how does the choice of methods and procedures influence the effects and quality of the results? 

Overview of the international status of transdisciplinary research

“The broad spectrum of the published articles offers a good overview of the international state of research on societal effectiveness of transdisciplinary research approaches”, says Alexandra Lux, head of the TransImpact project. “However, the papers also show that there are still many open questions regarding the effectiveness of transdisciplinary research arising in the connection with theories of societal change, and the topics of participation, co-creation, and evaluation”. Under the leadership of ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research and in cooperation with the Center for Technology and Society (ZTG) at the Technische Universität Berlin, scientists of the TransImpact project analysed how transdisciplinary research can foster the desired societal and scientific effects. 

TransImpact: effectiveness research in close collaboration with actors

Here, the research team assessed sixteen transdisciplinary research projects and worked on four main topics in close collaboration with scientists, practitioners and funding institutions: (1) The determination of effects during the phase of problem definition; (2) the emergence of potentials due to the participation of actors from practice and (3) procedures applied in order to integrate heterogeneous knowledge bases; (4) strengthening the effectiveness of projects by creating transfer potentials and by generalizing the findings obtained in individual case studies. Transdisciplinary research projects that had already been completed were systematically assessed and the results were processed in cooperation with the project actors and other experts in transdisciplinary research. In this special issue, one article gives insight into the overarching results of TransImpact and another article deals in greater detail with the fourth thematic focus. 
The articles of the special issue “Transdisciplinary Sustainability Research – Linking research processes and outputs to societal effects” are available for download: 

The research project “TransImpact – Effective transdisciplinary research. Analysis and transfer of standards for transdisciplinary research” was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in its Social-ecological Research funding priority.

More about the project:

TransImpact – Effective Transdisciplinary Research