Transdisciplinary: A new way to do research or just jargon?

April 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Image courtesy of NIH

As those of you who read my entry on leaf-cutter ants know, I attended the Institute of Medicine’s Social Biology of Microbial Communities meeting last month. At that meeting, one word mentioned during the second day’s opening remarks made my ears prick up: transdisciplinary.

The discussion briefly touched on how research should be transciplinary and move beyond interdisciplinary work. Which begs the question: What the heck is transciplinary research? The topic wasn’t further elaborated on at that point in the meeting.

According to Wikipedia, transdisciplinary studies:

are an area of research and education that addresses contemporary issues that cannot be solved by one or even a few points-of-view. It brings together academic experts, field practitioners, community members, research scientists, political leaders, and business owners among others to solve some of the pressing problems facing the world, from the local to the global.

We’re all familiar with interdisciplinary research by now, and funding agencies have embraced the concept. Just look to the National Science Foundation (NSF report on funding interdisciplinary projects; PDF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH Common Fund example here).

But what about transdisciplinary? I found one example of transdisciplinary research at the National Cancer Institute, which gives some explanation of how transdisciplinary research may differ from multidisciplinary research. Two years ago, the NCI reissued funds for its Transdisciplinary Research on Energetics and Cancer. NCI explained the research brings together

multiple disciplines and encompasses projects that cover the biology, genomics, and genetics of energy balance to behavioral, socio-cultural, and environmental influences upon nutrition, physical activity, weight, energetics, and cancer risk.

If we use this NCI example, we see that transdisciplinary goes beyond the strict academic laboratory disciplines and takes into account real-world factors. But how do we figure out with whom to collaborate with for transdisciplinary science for the best results? And how can we know which projects are best suited for these kinds of collaborations?

I would also hazard a guess that funding agencies would have to shift in how they dole out grants for transdiciplinary research, because the proposed work may not fall within the traditional lines of a funding agency’s purview.

Unexpectedly, I found an interesting discussion on the differences between the different types of research on The Language Tips blog by one “dlseltzer” at the University of Pittsburgh. dlseltzer devoted an entire post on this subject last year, using the NIH Roadmap  of 2003 to try to parse out what the differences were between interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary.

According to this post, multidisciplinary is no longer hip, because NIH at the end of 2003 concluded this kind of research wasn’t effective in addressing problems in a comprehensive and effective fashion. But what about interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary?

Here’s what the Language Tips blog had to say:

Transdisciplinary research goes further than interdisciplinary — and I’m not sure I’m buying it. While interdisciplinary research brings different disciplines to bear on a specific problem, in transdisciplinary research, the knowledge from each discipline is melded together and creates a new framework for the research team. The researchers share the same newly formed knowledge and skill set.

The blogger concluded that transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary could be used interchangeably.

Let me know about any examples you are aware of that sets apart transdisciplinary research in the biomedical research field from interdisciplinary research. Or feel free to say if you think it’s a pure play of buzzwords.

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