Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Higher Education and Research

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Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Higher Education and Research


Key Concepts

Developing strong knowledge economies and achieving sustainable development goals (SDGs) are the most urgent priorities of many countries in the second decade of the 21st century.

Global competitiveness in the information age is essential to prosperity, but only if it can be achieved sustainably and equitably for individuals, societies, and the natural environment that supports them.

These are complex challenges with many interconnected opportunities and problems that involve all sectors of society and build on virtually all human and scientific disciplines of knowledge.

Strategies addressing these priorities require mindsets and skills for integrating scientific knowledge from different disciplines (interdisciplinary) with practical, political, and local society knowledge (transdisciplinary).

The National Academies of Science 2005 report, “Facilitating interdisciplinary research”, identifies four major drivers of interdisciplinary research: complexity of nature & society, research problems at the interface of disciplines, the need to solve societal problems, and the changes caused by innovative technology (see facing page).

Drivers Of Interdisciplinary Research

Excerpts from “Facilitating interdisciplinary research”, National Academies of Science, 2005

In 2003, the National Academies of Science established the Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, whose members were drawn from government, academe, and industry. The committee was charged with developing findings, conclusions, and recommendations regarding the current state of interdisciplinary research and the factors that encourage (or discourage) it in academic, industry, and federal laboratory settings. The 2005 report from the committee identified four drivers of interdisciplinary research.

The Inherent Complexity of Nature and Society

“It is not possible to study the earth’s climate, for example, without considering the oceans, rivers, sea ice, atmospheric constituents, solar radiation, transport processes, land use, land-cover, and other anthropogenic practices and the feedback mechanisms that link this “system of subsystems” across scales of space and time. … If science and engineering deal with extremely complex systems, the same is true for studies of human society. How human societies evolve, make decisions, interact, and solve problems are all matters that call for diverse insights … [which require] collaboration across the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities.”

The Drive to Explore Basic Research Problems at the Interface of Disciplines

“Some of the most interesting scientific questions are found at the interfaces between disciplines and in the white spaces on organizational charts. Exploring such interfaces and interstices leads investigators beyond their own disciplines to invite the participation of researchers in adjacent or complementary fields.”

The Stimulus of Generative Technology

“Generative technologies are those whose novelty and power not only find applications of great value but also have the capacity to transform existing disciplines and generate new ones.”

The Need to Solve Societal Problems

“Human society depends more than ever on sound science for sound decision making. The fabric of modern life—its food, water, security, jobs, energy, and transportation—is held together largely by techniques and tools of science and technology. But the application of technologies to enhance the quality of life can itself create problems that require technological solutions.”

National Academies (U.S.)., Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (U.S.), National Academy of Sciences (U.S.), National Academy of Engineering., & Institute of Medicine (U.S.). (2005). Facilitating interdisciplinary research. Washington, D.C: The National Academies Press. Available from:

Higher education and research institutions are key contributors to the evidence-based public policy and innovation-driven economic development at the heart of knowledge economies and sustainable development. In many countries, universities are the largest providers of the skilled workforce and the research & development needed for both economic growth and healthy governance.

In recent decades, top universities and research institutions around the world have been dedicating more resources to building interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary (ITD) competency in faculty, researchers, students, and institutional leadership.

Building ITD competency involves innovative approaches to research and educational design. It also involves visionary leadership to reform university infrastructure that has been historically organised by disciplines.

“The potential power of IDR [interdisciplinary research] to produce novel and even revolutionary insights is generally accepted. Ultimately, however, the value of IDR to the scientific enterprise depends on the extent to which individual researchers are free to engage in it. IDR must be not only possible but also attractive for students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty members.” (NAS, 2005, p. 39).

This issue of KnE Insights introduces fundamental ITD concepts and describes key elements of building local and national ITD competency through higher education and research institutions.

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