Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary scholarship for a civilisation in distress: questions for and from the Global South

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  • 1 University of Brasília, , Brazil
  • | 2 Azim Premji University, , India
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Despite obstacles, institutional barriers and prejudices, interdisciplinarity is a growing movement within academia. Evolving from the pioneering experiences in broad multidisciplinary ventures since the post–Second World War era, interdisciplinary programmes and research projects are now a worldwide reality in universities. Complex and interconnected challenges of humanity, such as social unrests, economic and ecological crises, political turmoil and global human health emergencies demand integration of efforts and competencies of researchers from a wide range of backgrounds, and the involvement of actors from outside the academia. In recent years, complex challenges fuelling the need for better integration of work in universities and research centres with real demands of societies are further feeding transdisciplinary endeavours. Such movements pose new questions, ranging from institutional arrangements to methodological frameworks, which are far from being solved. This article reflects on the nature and practice of scholarly engagement in this trajectory during the 21st century from vantage points of the Global South. Some insights are based on what we have learnt over our work lives, and some are based on collected information about experiences in India and Brazil. This contribution also raises questions that could potentially concern other countries, especially in the Global South. However, it is not a handbook directly applicable to realities other than Brazil and India. Discussions in academia about pathways to interdisciplinarity should go beyond its legitimisation. The agenda now has to shift towards transdisciplinary co-construction of knowledge, by creating gateways to connect the scientific world to the ‘real world’.

Abstract

Despite obstacles, institutional barriers and prejudices, interdisciplinarity is a growing movement within academia. Evolving from the pioneering experiences in broad multidisciplinary ventures since the post–Second World War era, interdisciplinary programmes and research projects are now a worldwide reality in universities. Complex and interconnected challenges of humanity, such as social unrests, economic and ecological crises, political turmoil and global human health emergencies demand integration of efforts and competencies of researchers from a wide range of backgrounds, and the involvement of actors from outside the academia. In recent years, complex challenges fuelling the need for better integration of work in universities and research centres with real demands of societies are further feeding transdisciplinary endeavours. Such movements pose new questions, ranging from institutional arrangements to methodological frameworks, which are far from being solved. This article reflects on the nature and practice of scholarly engagement in this trajectory during the 21st century from vantage points of the Global South. Some insights are based on what we have learnt over our work lives, and some are based on collected information about experiences in India and Brazil. This contribution also raises questions that could potentially concern other countries, especially in the Global South. However, it is not a handbook directly applicable to realities other than Brazil and India. Discussions in academia about pathways to interdisciplinarity should go beyond its legitimisation. The agenda now has to shift towards transdisciplinary co-construction of knowledge, by creating gateways to connect the scientific world to the ‘real world’.

Key messages

  • Addressing complex real-world global challenges requires integrating academic work in universities and research centres.

  • In order to do so, the research agenda has to shift towards transdisciplinary co-construction of knowledge with academics and stakeholders in society.

  • New institutional arrangements and processes are also needed but are insufficiently studied and implemented.

  • Global South–South collaborations in interdisciplinary approaches are also crucial for successful evolution of academic responses.

Introduction

Climate and ecological crises, terrorist strikes, refugee crises, the COVID pandemic, and other forms of distress for many and profits for a few: these challenges sound like the daily newsfeed of our times. Understanding and addressing the resulting chaos has become a challenge even for a society with cutting-edge advancements in science and technology. For almost one thousand years, universities have been a space for transmitting existing and creating new knowledge. More recently, research centres outside the academy have also begun to play a role in production of science, technology and innovation. From a historical worldview, even if marked by the influence of religion, the university of the Middle Ages and early modern times prepared thinkers, researchers, scholars and educators grounded in studies of a few core areas, such as theology, mathematics, medicine and law. A typical scholar of those times resembled Copernicus, Galileo or Newton. Thinkers were influenced and inspired by other intellectuals, and sometimes they interacted (Collins, 2009 [1998]), but they typically worked on their own and published alone. Darwin and Einstein, for instance, developed their ideas in their individual, personal journeys as perseverant scholars (Barabási, 2005). This pattern lasted until the first half of the 20th century.

The great transformations provoked by the Industrial Revolution led the university, since the 19th century, to adopt a more pragmatic and instrumental pathway. New fields of deeper comprehension emerged, introducing more practical skills and training. Humboldt’s project for the foundation of Berlin University in 1809, and the schools created by Napoleon in France, are exemplars of this transformation. Pasteur and Darwin also represent that momentum. They were still universalists, but increasingly pragmatists, concerned with not only discovery of knowledge but also about its use. Since then, but more intensely in the 20th century, the trend was towards incremental specialisation. After the Second World War, however, specialisation and collaboration in collective endeavours emerged as a prominent trend. The Manhattan Project, in the 1940s, is a landmark as a ‘problem-oriented’ collective research endeavour. Under the coordination of Robert Oppenheimer, a multidisciplinary team was mobilised. Each researcher had his or her own disciplinary function, but the whole project depended on collective success of all members. Since that experience, a growing number of complex interdisciplinary projects were implemented, such as NASA’s Apollo Project. For more than half a century now, multi-author publications have also been growing in numbers and in the rosters of authors (King, 2012; Gates et al, 2021).

Furthermore, over the course of the 20th century, the university evolved further into a twofold movement. New disciplines emerged: on the one hand from two or more disciplines merging to form a new one, as a result of an aggregation, such as biophysics; while, on the other hand, resulting from fragmentation of consolidated disciplines, such as natural sciences splitting into biology and geology (Bursztyn and Drummond, 2014). Nicolescu (2012: 11) called that process the ‘big-bang’ in disciplinary origins: increasing ‘from seven (when first universities were founded in the 13th century), to more than 8000 in 2012’. Emerging novelty is in the flourishing of integration as an inevitable trend, in which disciplines became connected to one another, in order to face complex challenges. Ecology and economics, for instance, coevolved through the 18th century until they segregated and became many specialised disciplines towards the late 19th century. However, Georgescu-Roegen (1977) proposed reconciling biology and economics (bioeconomics). Reintegration of ecology and economics (for example, ecological-economics) also started around the 1980s (Costanza et al, 2015). Even so, the dialogue between economics and ecology is still far from a customary or routine practice in universities.

It is worth noting that integration (of disciplines) is not the same as integrative processes. The former is a formal process in which two or more disciplines converge into a single field (such as urban planning and, more recently, sustainable development) (Bursztyn et al, 2016; Litre et al, 2022). Integrative processes refer to methodological procedures adopted to tackle complex challenges, as is the case of interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary ventures (for example, studies on climate-change adaptation). This article reflects on the nature and the practice of scholarly engagement in this trajectory during the 21st century from the vantage location of the Global South. From a methodological point of view, it is not a traditional research paper, rather an essay presenting perspectives and experiences of the authors, who have long been engaged in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary practices and studies. In order to support some part of the analysis in the essay, we provide background secondary information about the situation of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in both countries. Some insights are based on India and Brazil, though some also reference other countries and institutions as well as academic partnerships and interactions. India and Brazil are among the most prominent countries of the Global South in the worldwide academic scene. Both have problems in common, but they have also singularities. Hence, analysis of their experiences cannot be automatically transposed to the Global South as a whole, as different countries might have their own particularities even with sharing some common characteristics.

In the first section we present a brief view of the role of science and collaboration for understanding and providing ways of dealing with complex problems affecting humanity at large. The focus is the recent evolution of academic institutional frameworks and infrastructure in India and Brazil. Then we move on to discuss the role of cooperation in the advancement of science, as a key focus for the understanding of how academia in India and Brazil are syntonic with international agendas. Next, we present an analysis of how scientific institutions in the Global South are responding to new complex challenges. We follow this with a discussion of some key issues crucial for establishing pathways to adapt universities of the Global South to present times, so that, apart from the need for sharpening disciplinary knowledge (specialisation), new spaces for integration (both internally and with off-campus reality) are fostered. Then we raise questions regarding the need to enlarge the involvement of partners from outside academia in research (integrative processes or horizontal integration across stakeholders or interest groups) in a transdisciplinary engagement with external stakeholders (transdisciplinarity), while integration, as noted earlier, is related to disciplines within academia (interdisciplinarity). Considering specifically the realities of India and Brazil, the former process represents an important step towards connecting academia to the ‘real world’. Finally, we present recommendations for universities from the Global South on identifying their vocation and spaces to engage in synchronised action and research, without having to compromise acknowledgement for their contribution to cutting-edge knowledge and practices.

Where academic approaches stand during multiple crises

Human society across the planet, over its evolution of nearly 10,000 years since the agricultural revolution, has survived many a crisis provoked by human and natural causes. Major among them today are well-documented wars, holocausts, genocides, epidemics, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. To these are added newer crises becoming visible in since the latter part of the 20th century, including pollution, nuclear disasters, forest fires, melting glaciers, rapid loss of species, loss of fertile soil, global warming, pandemics, economic or employment crises, mass international migrations, terrorism and social unrests. As newer horizons are opening up in improving the quality of our lives, however, newer challenges are emerging. As a result, the universality of crises is becoming increasingly evident at the turn of the first quarter of the 21st century, exposing the deep and wide interconnectedness of ecologies, societies and economies across spaces and communities. The history of humanity’s persistence on the planet reveals how cooperation and collaboration between and within various groups inhabiting a region helped them survive. Until recently, solutions to the problems of the Global South – be it technology, population, sanitation, hunger, economic growth or healthcare were devised in universities and research centres of the North and transferred worldwide. However, the Global South is emerging as an important player in this scenario and needs to build its institutional pathway to develop methods and practices focusing on its own realities.1

Decolonising knowledge production is a recognised academic necessity in the Global South now (Mohr, 2021). For example, while the average annual growth rate of science and engineering publications in the world for the period 2008–18 was 3.83 per cent, in India it grew by 10.73 per cent and in Brazil by 5.42 per cent. During the same period, in the US it increased only 0.71 per cent and countries such as Japan and France had negative growth, according to data from the US-based National Science Foundation. Given the universality of problems facing humanity, and considering the protagonism of the Global South (Hochstetler and Milkoreit, 2015), it is time to deliberate about suitability and sufficiency of emerging scholarship in response to specific crises. This imperative requires looking at what is happening in academic spheres of the Global South and where they should be heading.

Within the academic environment in the Global South, discussion about the need to adapt scientific practices to complex challenge, followed a trend similar to the dominant discussion carried out in the North. Since the 1970s the focus was mostly theoretical, inspired by authors such as Ivan Illich, Andre Gorz, Manfred Max-Neef, Humberto Maturana, Ignacy Sachs, Edgar Morin and Basarab Nicolescu. From the 1990s onwards, the focus moved from the need to rethink the nature of the university, to how to implement changes or institutionalising new trends. Since then, seminal works have begun to address processes such as interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity (Klein, 1990; Hirsch Hadorn et al, 2008), cross-disciplinary integration (O’Rourke et al, 2015), and integration and implementation sciences (Bammer, 2013; Bammer et al, 2020). They have inspired debate about institutionalising interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary practices in universities, mostly in postgraduate studies and research in the Global South. Recent literature on interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in the Global South is focused mainly on analysing actual experiences and on how they are breaking through disciplinary prejudices and bureaucratic barriers (see Vienni Baptista, 2016; Das and Paital, 2021).

Following suit, institutions of higher learning have been trying to adapt to emerging challenges, even if the pace at which they do so often appears too slow to solve multiple crises that are urgent. Furthermore, the 21st century is witnessing breaching of the hegemonic monolithic disciplinary scholarship that ruled academic thought and institutions for over a century in many societies. Realising the need for closer interactions among experts from diverse disciplines in problem-solving research, India and Brazil saw the emergence of interdisciplinary spaces within their academic institutions. A basic estimate of new universities, programmes and centres of research in India and Brazil corroborates this trend, documented in Box 1.

Interdisciplinary programmes in India and Brazil

At least 30 institutions came into national prominence since 2005 undertaking interdisciplinary research and education in India, in addition to similar smaller efforts in individual states (such as the Indian Institute of Science’s Division of Interdisciplinary Research). There are interdisciplinary refresher courses and area studies programmes launched from the tenth five-year plan (2002–07) under the University Grants Commission guidelines. Following the Yash Pal Report (2009) on rejuvenating higher education in India, 417 departments of universities/colleges were provided with financial support (of up to INR6 million per institution) to promote interdisciplinary teaching and research. interdisciplinary journals across social sciences and biophysical sciences (for example, Conservation and Society; Man, Environment and Society; Ecology, Economy and Society) and scholarly articles on how to integrate interdisciplinarity in higher education, development practice and policies are becoming increasingly visible (for example, Pramanik, 2014; Sharma and Singh, 2015; Das and Paital, 2021; Rai et al, 2021).

In Brazil, postgraduate programmes in interdisciplinarity are growing twice as fast as the overall postgraduate offering, since the national system of accreditation (Capes) created a specific evaluation committee in 1999 to host interdisciplinary proposals. In 2019, 12 per cent of about 4,500 masters’ and PhD programmes were under the interdisciplinarity heading. In order to manage such a large and increasing number of programmes, the interdisciplinary committee was subdivided, in 2011, into four evaluation chambers: environment and agrarian sciences; humanities and social sciences; engineering, technology and management; and health and biological sciences. Only about 20 per cent of the overall demand for accreditation within the interdisciplinarity umbrella is approved, reflecting a stricter set of criteria as compared to disciplinary areas. Interdisciplinarity became a special chapter in the Brazilian National Postgraduation Plan 2011–20 (see: https://www.gov.br/capes/pt-br/centrais-de-conteudo/livros-pnpg-volume-i-mont-pdf, Ch 6, pp 133–44, accessed on 24 November 2021).

However, despite at least two decades of increasingly visible and legitimate presence of interdisciplinary academics in India and Brazil, and more generally across the globe, humanity is still at a crossroads with respect to identifying and prioritising the kind of scholarship needed to endure the lashing waves of varied crises. What type of academic institutions and communities, then, are necessary to provide relevant and appropriate knowledge to inform our society in order to tackle and to survive these multiple crises and to evolve together as a resilient civilisation? The list of participants includes universities, think tanks and research institutes. Yet, current scholarship is not sufficient to accomplish the goal of a resilient civilisation, because it must be translated into real-time action on the ground. This urgent imperative, in turn, requires changes in social, cultural, political and governance institutions in each country. In line with the global change outlook of the Global Social Challenges Journal and core strengths of the authors, as well as the need for clarity, this article focuses on potential for and modalities of revamping academic institutions and practices. It is noteworthy that such a trend is becoming commonplace not only in the Global South, as Moreno-Serna (2021) indicated. His research drew on recent experience of the Innovation and Technology for Development Centre at Madrid Technological University, in co-producing knowledge in collaboration with governmental and private actors, aimed at reaching the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in Spain.

A brief look at global academic cooperation

The need for scientists across the globe to engage in multidisciplinary teamwork has been clear at least since the creation of the Manhattan Project, nearly 80 years ago, as mentioned in the last section. Since the 1950s, this recognition evolved still further with complex urban problems and regional imbalances being dealt with by integrating disciplinary competencies in interdisciplinary teams. Since the 1970s academia has also become aware of societal challenges and Rittel and Webber’s (1973) notion of wicked problems2 which cannot be solved from within the range of single disciplines, and to which there are no precise and definitive solutions because they are constantly changing. Increasing evidence of complex wicked problems can be considered the turning point from multidisciplinarity to interdisciplinarity. But, making the solution-seeking knowledge necessary to reach urgent decisions, for example to deal with environmental crisis, must deal with uncertain facts and disputed values with high stakes (Ravetz, 1999). This development envisages the need for interdisciplinarity to evolve into a post-normal science and transdisciplinary engagement with stakeholders. Since the 1970s urgent threats, such as environmental problems, have been demanding mobilisation and integration of multiple disciplines to understand their causes and drivers in order to find solutions. In addition, complex problems such as HIV-AIDS, population ageing and, recently, the COVID-19 pandemic further propelled demand for interdisciplinary and international collaboration. Yet, Lee and Haupt observed, ‘Despite the tense geopolitical climate, countries increased their international collaboration and open-access publications during the pandemic. However, not all countries engaged at a global scale. Countries that have been more impacted by the crisis and those with relatively lower GDPs tended to participate more in scientific globalism than their counterparts’ (2021: 949).

Even so, networks are spreading across many sectors and societies, leveraging revolutionary advances in information and communication technology. Since creation of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and construction of the particle accelerator of CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), collaborative research involving great number participants across the globe has become a recurring reality, resulting in a growing number of collective publications, sometimes with hundreds of co-authors from different backgrounds. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, development of the Multidimensional Poverty Index, as well as Sustainable Development Goals are popular global interdisciplinary efforts. As astronauts from diverse backgrounds started spending more time together in outer space, even rocket scientists began working closely with natural and social scientists (Pass and Harrison, 2016). This trend is evident in the sharp increase seen in recent years, as already mentioned, of the percentage of multi-author studies in scientific publications worldwide. Data from ISI (International Scientific Information) from 2019, involving 22 categories of ‘disciplines’, shows that the group ‘multidisciplinary’ was ranked 15th in terms of the percentage of papers with more than five authors and was the fourth category with more than 50 authors on an average per paper (Adams et al, 2019).

Here too, however, and despite gains, limits persist. Intra-university collaboration between disciplines is still a relative rarity. This lag occurs despite a rise in the inter-institutional collaborations, specifically between research or technology institutions (NAS, 2004) within the South and between institutions in the North and South. Student exchange programmes between the universities mostly hover around a North–South axis rather than South–South exchanges. While universities in the US or Europe hosting increasing number of college students from various parts of the Global South has become a norm, it is still rare to find African or South American students in universities of Asian countries or vice versa. Given comparability in systemic dynamics between sociocultural, political-economic and ecological problems among the countries of the Global South, this lack of South–South collaboration in education and research is crucial to address. If done, that will be an important academic transformation that the Global South needs in order to streamline and institutionalise transdisciplinarity for problem-solving.

Changing nature of academics in the Global South

International collaborations in interdisciplinary approaches mentioned earlier have been instrumental in shaping evolution of research, analysis and higher education in country-specific academic institutions. In this changing dynamic of scientific institutions of the Global South in particular, it is important to look into institutional arrangements, and methodological and pedagogical novelties of modern scholarship that are being pursued and are emerging in the first quarter of the 21st century. The university is a shared and dynamic space for imaginations, knowledge systems and creativities. It is, however, conservative and slow to change when particular subjects demanded by thriving economic sectors or by emerging challenges call for changes in their long-standing modus operandi. Older, more consolidated and normal disciplines – characterised as puzzle-solving science by Kuhn (1962) – usually hold the power of decision making. When financial resources are scarce, as they usually are, this pattern manifests in objective or subjective barriers (Lélé and Norgard (2005) identify barriers to interdisciplinarity) regarding new knowledge-producing actors, such as interdisciplinary groups. When they are able to raise external funds for their research, they tend to be better accepted by traditional institutional power structure. As a result of their growth, it is not unusual to now see interdisciplinary projects and centres within universities. Notable interdisciplinary scholars today have often been trained in a specific disciplinary tradition and may have contributed notably to disciplinary scholarship before establishing themselves in interdisciplinarity. Yet, a narcissist syndrome (Bursztyn and Drummond, 2014) afflicts older and more consolidated disciplines so that acceptability of interdisciplinary scholars within such parent departments is challenging in many institutions.

Nonetheless, with emergence of a new generation of liberal universities and other academic institutions open to interdisciplinary scholarship, a small cohort of interdisciplinary scholars has been emerging. Their employment potential is still confined to a limited number of organisations, though prejudices, obstacles and misunderstandings regarding interdisciplinarity, typical until about the turn of the millennium are less hindering now. In fact many young universities in India and Brazil welcome faculty members who would have crossed several disciplinary borders or been trained in interdisciplinarity. These institutions tend to offer more interdisciplinary degree programmes and support problem-oriented research, at scales appropriate to their functioning, as compared to most older institutions in higher education and research. For instance, many new academic institutions in India host interdisciplinary research-cum-action hubs on water (for example, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment,3 Shiv Nadar University,4 Indian Institute of Science Education and Research5) and climate-related regional issues (see, for instance, projects reviewed in Manjula and Rengalakshmi, 2021). In Brazil, the number of federal universities increased from 45 in 2002 to 69 in 2021, with the majority of new universities structured around teaching programmes or courses (moving away from disciplinary organisation into departments). Azim Premji University, India, follows such a programmatic structure, with programmes designed according to identified gaps in development action.6 In such new universities, faculty members from various backgrounds are allocated in activities around different teaching programmes or courses. As a consequence, students interact more and research is more integrated across disciplines and actors.

Thus finding a place for interdisciplinarity in academia is not so difficult now as it was in 2000, or at least barriers are no longer as constraining as before. The new generation of liberal institutions open to interdisciplinarity coexists with improvements in the institutional and cultural assimilation of interdisciplinary programmes in more traditional universities. This trend is only nascent in many developing countries, as full legitimacy of interdisciplinary initiatives is still not common. However, regardless of how internal procedures are evolving within universities in the Global South, collaborative international projects and networks are connecting researchers from different backgrounds to tackle universal challenges such as sustainable development and climate change. Interdisciplinary outcomes of such projects and their publication as multi-author pieces in scientific periodicals are generally acknowledged by their respective host institutions. Also, involvement of graduate students and exchange of research fellows from different disciplines are important pillars in the assimilation of interdisciplinarity within universities.

Given such progressive steps in global academic advances, mono-disciplinary approaches that have been dominating conventional academic tradition are under pressure to change. Hence interdisciplinarity can be considered as an irreversible trend in academia. Therefore, a new agenda for the institutionalisation and operation of interdisciplinarity is needed. Instead of just thinking about ‘to be or not to be’, it is time for advancing ‘how to be’. The point now is no longer just selling the need for interdisciplinarity, but rather calibrating it for tackling dynamically emerging complex challenges. This imperative leads to the question of how to build solid hubs to connect disciplines within the university, to produce interdisciplinary know-how while avoiding the risk of making them refuges for incompetence or shallow science. Some elements of interdisciplinary research may be similar to disciplinary efforts, such as expecting an academic, peer-reviewed output. Robust publications within an interdisciplinary group, as experience has shown, needs open-minded researchers from diverse and rigorous academic backgrounds enthused by a complex real-world concern, to be part of the team (Purushothaman et al, 2016; Bammer et al, 2020). The emerging presence of interdisciplinary spaces for communicating research work is encouraging. New interdisciplinary periodicals are proliferating and some older disciplinary periodicals are opening new sectional options for publishing interdisciplinary outputs. They join cross-disciplinary spaces already existing in the universities; for example, research planning or evaluation boards and ethics committees. Novel structures at this juncture are needed to provide hubs fostering research collectives and training, while providing space for deliberating complex problems.

Important considerations for a new academic agenda for and from the South

To reiterate, the complex problems facing viability of our common present and future indicate that it is high time we venture beyond newly emerging trends in interdisciplinarity. Impactful interdisciplinary research for today’s world needs to traverse more than academics as we know and imagine them. Streamlining interdisciplinary efforts to cause actual impacts in a dynamically changing real-world situation would be a step towards transformation into transdisciplinary approaches and processes. This momentum would essentially be driven by groups involving important stakeholders of the problem or research question at hand. Such inclusive academic processes required for societal change should be initiated from the beginning of each transdisciplinary effort, right from problem framing and research design through selection of methods and on to strategies for communication and action. Efforts to achieve simultaneous knowledge generation and real-time application that aim at solving complex problems on the ground will be characterised by absence of rigid preset and linear processes. This change, in turn, will require cyclical steps of learning and unlearning, sharing and co-designing of experiments.

Moving beyond well-known more inclusive research formats such as Participatory Action Research (PAR), a transdisciplinary strategy can be deployed when a predefined research design is unable to bring out socially and practically relevant results. Adapting the framework of PAR, Selener (1997) and Eelderink et al (2020) recognised four essential elements: reflection (engaging in ongoing reflexivity), dialogue (communicating with group members and others), voice (listening to all group members and others) and action (taking the step of actual doing). Together they become a co-inquiry of a transdisciplinary nature. Consistent engagement of the four elements in co-inquiry processes can also lead to co-creation of action plans with contributions from different partner groups. Extending the PAR format to transdisciplinarity will also mean the co-construction of knowledge by this partnership between academics and agents in other sectors through participation, transformation and engagement with concepts as well as praxis (Horner, 2016). Thus transdisciplinarity aspires to be a characteristic feature of post-normal science located at the interface of epistemology and governance, aiming to solve complex problems (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 2003) by synthesising a two-way flow of information between primary stakeholders of the findings and academic communities.

Major challenges for such a paradigm shift in doing transdisciplinary research includes multiple difficulties in: (1) setting a realistic time period for completion of action research, (2) delineating clear processes and responsibilities, (3) planning diverse communication strategies, (4) fairly attributing credits and authorships to everyone’s satisfaction, as well as (5) finding financial support. Later we articulate more specific concerns in metrics and methods for pursuing transdisciplinary approaches:

  • Metrics: establishing appropriate but flexible criteria to measure and assess progress and outcomes of the transdisciplinary processes, so that researchers involved in transdisciplinary ventures are not ‘punished’ by the traditional academic rewarding system for not ‘playing the game’ of a strictly followed publish-or-perish evaluation criteria. Scientometrics is keen to measure and monitor publications, citations and impact factors. But it is still far from developing a toolkit to evaluate and ponder alternative outcomes such as co-constructing solutions with stakeholders from outside the academia. As Klein cautioned, ‘evaluation does not typically include community metrics such as policy changes, improvements in health and new partnerships’ (2021: 93).

  • Methods: developing transdisciplinary processes involves academic and other researchers from various backgrounds trained to use different concepts, protocols and procedures. The choice of a prevalent disciplinary method or a combination of methods, according to the particular problem at hand is a common challenge for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary teams. Sometimes, biology can prevail, sometimes sociology or another such discipline. Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary practices need to be methodologically flexible and open-minded. For instance, in dealing with climate change all participants have to hear what climatologists have to say and follow their methods, no matter if the focus is on adaptation by a specific community. Even if adaptation is mostly cultural, social, economic or related to public policies, the effective baseline (scenarios and forecasts) is set by climatologists.

The current climate-change process and prospects suggest that this process will be further accelerated in coming years, highlighting the relevance of transdisciplinary practices to bring together researchers, political decision makers and traditional communities. When we consider traditional populations (Indigenous, riverside dwellers, peasants) we must also consider that they are usually guided by decisions based on their culture, grounded in their social practices over many generations. Over time, they have developed a world view and understood manifestations of nature and how to respond accordingly. However, current rapid changes (extreme events) are accentuating a mismatch between culture and praxis. In addition, these developments tend to lead to misperceptions that, in turn, can lead to misadaptations. When strategies for adaptation do not correspond to a real-world situation and its trends, serious damage to well-being of these populations (economic losses, health problems, social maladjustments) are likely to occur. Yet, a collaboration of researchers with local communities, and with formulators and operators of public policies, in processes of sharing information and co-construction of solutions, tends to minimise the risk of wrong decisions.

Recent studies focusing on local populations in the Brazilian Amazon and similar ongoing studies in India provide a glimpse of such risks. The pattern of hydrological dynamics in the Amazon River basin has been changing rapidly in recent years, due to an intense process of deforestation and climate change in general. For many generations, riverside communities of floodplains developed an adaptive culture, usually building their houses on stilts and using a scheme for lifting the floor (maromba) according to the level of the annual floods. However, frequent and extreme hydrological events are disrupting those traditional adaptation strategies. In many cases, the strategies of local dwellers are not enough to cope with extremely high water levels. Science plays a crucial role informing about the need for new adaptive schemes. Interactions of researchers and riverine populations are also enhancing experiences by moving traditional houses built on stilts to higher parts of the riverbanks, or even building new floating houses (Pereira et al, 2019). Other studies highlight relevance of misperceptions as a driver of misadaptation, regarding decisions about agricultural practices (Funatsu et al, 2019).

Experience in central India points to the possibility of creating new adaptive processes and methods using disciplinary methods modified for the context, to match stakeholder communities’ contexts and preferences (Purushothaman et al, forthcoming). In the action research project on agrarian adaptive skilling (Adaptive Skilling Through Action Research – ASAR), interactions with communities (from conceptualising the problem onwards to designing and planning collective response) are conceived in meetings of the whole project team including a study circle formed by local villagers. However, implementation of these interactions are designed and led by practitioners from a development NGO (PRADAN7). When it comes to setting up and designing agricultural experiments in farmers’ fields, leadership comes from agricultural and social scientists in the team but, again, hands-on modalities of treatments and replications of experiments as well as eliciting indicators that community can perceive, are led by the practitioner team. This relationship involves negotiations and compromises in conventional processes of experimental and statistical designs.

In Brazil, ethnobiologists also have a tradition of interacting with local populations, especially fisher people, in order to better understand problems related to environmental protection and to produce outcomes taking into account local ecological knowledge (Silvano and Begossi, 2012; El-Hani et al, 2022). Similarly, anthropologists in India are working on forest-based culture and livelihoods of Indigenous communities (for example, Malhotra et al, 1993; Malhotra, 2003). However, these research methods do not guarantee fair restitution of findings to locals. The novelty in such experiences lies in co-construction from a transdisciplinary perspective as a strategy while following strict ethical principles among constituencies, such as small-scale farmers, Indigenous populations or slum dwellers. Co-constructing knowledge is a step forward compared to ethnological participant observation (Shah, 2017) as it involves participation from the beginning in co-defining research questions.

  • The question is how to connect interdisciplinary practices emerging within the university (such as hubs) with actors from the ‘real world’ (via gateways) eventually to achieve transition into transdisciplinarity. Such gateways must be grounded in institutional bases more durable than time-framed projects. University research teams are familiar with preset chronograms stipulating an end point. Whether objectives are reached or not, outcomes are sent to peer-reviewed journals and final reports delivered to financing agencies. In dealing with the ‘real world’, gateways can still cope with the conventional culture of projects, but in cases such as tackling wicked problems, those spaces must not only be flexible but more importantly also be durable, because they deal with ever-changing and never fully solved problems. While transdisciplinary gateways can be imagined outside universities, in dedicated institutions established around specific issues, they may not be durable or adaptable to the changing nature of problems.

  • A citizen observatory illustrates how to overcome limits of traditional institutional arrangement. Although there is no precise and consensual definition of a citizen observatory, most authors and experiences agree on the overall principle of such an organisation. The central principle is involving citizens in understanding environmental problems affecting their lives. According to Liu et al (2014: 4), a citizen observatory encompasses ‘three core components that underpin some of its objectives, i.e., raising the citizens’ environmental awareness; enabling dialogue among citizens, scientists and policy/decision makers and supporting data exchange among citizens, scientists and other stakeholders’. In recent years citizen observatories are proliferating and playing an important role in connecting academia with the ‘real world’.8

  • While India has ecological observatories to monitor climate change and an India observatory9 to extend various spatial data sources to the grassroots, it still has yet to come up with a citizen observatory. Recently, though, India has launched a National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Wellbeing,10 that could perhaps fill this gap for a bottom-up data generation mechanism for and by citizens.

Additional questions follow for deliberation. Is it necessary that a researcher evolves in interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary teams with established rigour, in peer-reviewed publications for instance, before entering transdisciplinary initiatives? When is the best moment to train interdisciplinary students – in undergraduate or in postgraduate programmes? Which is better, full interdisciplinary training (in degrees such as environmental sciences) or interdisciplinary seminars/classes (such as sustainability or interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary epistemology) to students of disciplinary degrees? These concerns have been discussed in the context of sustainability as an interdisciplinary programme in higher education by the authors and others in 2016 (Purushothaman et al, 2016). Other matters requiring consideration are described later: including timelines, confusion of roles of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity, validation of alternatives as ‘science’, inclusion of officials and private-sector actors, and integrity of research:

  • Timelines differ in academia and the ‘real world’. Society and economic players expect immediate responses to their demands, but researchers usually take a long time to provide them as they have to validate research results using established scientific methods and procedures and peer-reviewing processes, and complete duration of a project or of a PhD/​master’s level training. Transdisciplinary practices have to cope with such challenges. Yet, something in between the two time framings can be reached. For instance, by involving partners from outside the academy in research processes, researchers can better explain the relevance of scientific integrity and validation, so external partners can understand the significance of protocols in producing scientific knowledge. Relevant advances in reducing time-consuming peer-review procedures, though, are now emerging. For instance, the urgent need for responses to the COVID-19 crisis led top-level journals to dramatically shorten the gap between submissions and decisions about publication. More user friendly, ‘crowd reviewed’ (anyone in the concerned network across the globe can volunteer to review these papers), and shorter formats are emerging (for instance, Academia Letters) to communicate interim findings to a wide range of readers. Publishing data papers11 (see Coudel et al, 2022) and field notes also plays a relevant role both as dissemination of findings through open access to academics and as socialised sources for multiple uses.

  • Confusion of roles in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary ventures should be avoided as well. As transdisciplinary practices emerging from solution-oriented application of interdisciplinarity usually involve the community’s concerns, especially in the Global South, and action research is not value-neutral, special attention is warranted to avoid invasion by academic researchers into the legitimate knowledge space of a target community who are the primary stakeholders of the transdisciplinary initiative. Academic researchers can be allies of target communities without representing or speaking for them, without being patronising. It is a common practice among some NGO members, and also researchers, to speak on behalf of locals, as they usually are more eloquent and can articulate well to other actors. Yet, the border between a genuine, result-oriented mediation and enforcing academic supremacy is very loose. Indigenous communities today need to be conscious about such a ‘colonisation’ of their knowledge and empower their spokespersons so as to convey their unique rationale, values and logic to the scientific community.

  • As for evaluation decisions, the question of how to validate alternative approaches as ‘science’ coming from the co-construction process involving all actors in transdisciplinarity arises. Real change on the ground cannot always be captured in objective terms familiar to modern sciences. Therefore, we need to think about new indicators or measures for evaluating different milestones in implementation. In addition, results and outcomes for society must be communicated in an intelligible manner, while avoiding scientific meta-language (Molinengo et al, 2021). Currently, in many institutions, policy briefs, booklets, brochures, videos and talks appear as extra-academic outputs, though direct engagement with policy making or ground-level action process is rare. Will the latter then be counted as ‘academic outcomes’ in individual institutional evaluations, especially action outcomes (both qualitatively and quantitatively) at the grassroots?

  • Transdisciplinary initiatives could also include officials and private actors in research partnerships. Such participatory research and co-inquiries, though, can marginalise other pertinent social actors. Transdisciplinarity is prone to elite capture by political and capitalist players as much as more urbanised or articulate academic intellectuals, government officials or resourceful sponsors. This risk may be minimised if all participants speak the same language, share common protocols and can formulate their demands in a synchronised manner. However, this process is rather protracted, for example in the case of transdisciplinary research involving Indigenous communities that are yet to have spokespersons from their midst who are educated in mainstream traditions. In the case of the ASAR pilot project in three central Indian villages, it would have been possible to find the required financial support if communities could think, deliberate and express their preferences to funding agencies. Hence, a case needs to be made for a collective learning and orientation process in the beginning of any transdisciplinary effort, evolving a shared vocabulary.

  • Finally, redefining bases of what research integrity stands for is crucial in transdisciplinarity. It involves people from different backgrounds and social roles, more diverse than individuals with just disciplinary differences, for instance in an interdisciplinary research group. Yet, risks arise in doing so, such as the possibility of construing methodologies or outcomes as non-systematic and non-scientific. In cases involving Indigenous communities in the process of co-constructing new knowledge of immediate relevance to the community, biases and confusion between preparedness of the community and the normative reality of the larger society may also follow. For instance in the ASAR project mentioned earlier, in central India,12 academics feel urgency to sustain plural values of tribal agriculture through adaptive skilling, as impending ecological changes and political-economic pressures appear to accentuate vulnerability among already marginalised groups. But, tribal communities often take their own time to think, deliberate and act, even after being part of the action research group in a co-inquiry mode.

In Brazil, to further illustrate, the COVID-19 pandemic had twin impacts on activities of the Observatory of Social and Environmental Dynamics,13 illuminating how its studies about perception of climate change the basis for adapting decisions, based on the strategy of co-construction of knowledge. On the one hand, ‘social distancing’ dictated by ethical research protocol limited direct contact between researchers and local populations. On the other hand, opportunities were opened for new forms of collaborative interaction between researchers and members of the communities. As physical presence of researchers in situ was not possible, community members, in particular citizen researchers, were involved via virtual means, to elaborate the research instrument and to implement the study at the local level. The result was a rich exchange and a fine-tuning of themes originally identified by the researchers and real-world problems expressed by local representatives. In addition, it was possible to train members of the community in digital communication technology so that in future they can better express and discuss their real demands for knowledge to the larger society.

Concerns requiring attention

Roux et al (2017) have discussed challenges in conducting and advancing transdisciplinarity with respect to different actors, knowledge systems and pedagogic strategies. Here, we further this discussion into the nature of institutional spaces where transdisciplinarity can be fostered. Yet, a final challenge arises: how to define academic social responsibility of a state-of-the-art university and assess its capability to respond to wicked and complex problems. Several questions emerge from considering the need to update universities in order to effectively contribute to tackling risks currently faced by humanity, including how to (re)gain intellectual protagonism regarding major challenges of a world that also experiences a wave of denialism without possible alternatives. For a metamorphosis of academic institutions already anticipated by adapting to new roles, it is necessary to analyse how open they actually are given different existing university environments including young versus old, high versus low ranked, Global North versus Global South, and massive versus elitist. A second concern consists of the following additional questions about science, scientists and universities. Can they exist beyond or in spite of a knowledge system instituted and sustained by and for capital gain? If so, will they also be able to shed being fortresses and gatekeepers of knowledge? Following suit, can they prioritise their social responsibility to push boundaries of knowledge? If not, will they be able to co-host knowledge hubs to sprout and incubate inclusive research schemes? Moreover, who and what criteria will decide which part of a disciplinary boundary needs to be advanced, while accomplishing transdisciplinarity?

As for transdisciplinary processes, can we imagine decentralised institutions that are not megalomaniac about hosting huge numbers of people and trainings, while still being able to host and synthesise diverse perspectives? What role, then, can scale play along with integrating benefits of diversity without compromising rigour and depth in pursuing transdisciplinarity with an immediate purpose? And, finally, will more humane, intimate and locally embedded institutions be able to infuse methods and knowledge needed for transdisciplinarity, connective and inclusive co-inquiries involving continuous engagement of stakeholder communities? When such questions receive serious attention from solution-oriented learning communities, inclusive academic spaces will emerge in place of mainstream economy and knowledge production (for example, Indigenous communities, peasants, slum dwellers) who actively partner in co-producing knowledge for a civilisation in crisis. Yet, universities are still classified according to global standards such as the Times Higher Education ranking or the Shanghai Ranking. High ratings depend on indicators such as how alumni are placed in the global job market, how many articles faculty members publish in international indexed and high impact-factor journals and how many distinguished prizes they have won. Locally focused and socially conscious universities end up being trapped in a vicious circle: trying to play the game according to those criteria but never succeeding in becoming a top-rank institution. On the other hand, if they opt to be a transdisciplinary endeavour, they will not succeed either, because there is no bonus in those rankings for ventures such as co-construction of knowledge in collaboration with Indigenous communities, unless results are published in a traditional academic journal. That said, there could be visible inclusive, interactive interfaces (‘agoras’ as in Pohl et al, 2010) between the echelons of academics, officialdom and people, in finding ways to cope with persistent problems in their lives. Albeit, these may not win a Nobel Prize or a Right Livelihoods award for transdisciplinarity. Nevertheless, they are crucial for the health and survival of human society.

Final remarks

From a conceptual point of view, the way interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary practices are being implemented and are growing among researchers in India and Brazil does not differ from the experiences in the North. Definitions, as broadly presented by Nicolescu (1996) and further developed by authors such as Hirsch Hadorn et al (2008), parallel the case of the two countries that this article draws from. However, from a Global South perspective, the role and diversity of grassroots stakeholders as active partners in the processes are distinct from the North. Several categories of actors, though, have been historically marginalised from public decisions and from the making of science, even in the search for solutions to the problems they are experiencing. This limitation is the case of small-scale farmers and fisher people, Indigenous populations, slum dwellers and street vendors, among others. Even when their problems are somehow addressed, they remain passive beneficiaries. Transdisciplinarity can provide a fertile space to bring their functional, collaborative and creative roles to bloom while searching for solutions.

Ultimately, this article is not a call for inter- and transdisciplinarity institutions of the poor, rather with the poor (after Martinez-Allier, 2014). Based on prior discussion of incentivising universities to become citizen-inclusive interdisciplinary–transdisciplinary hubs engaged in problem-solving, we propose an alternative schema for scoring and ranking academic institutions, producing visible and immediate impacts acknowledged by local communities. These institutions will be involved in identifying and establishing locally embedded and owned solutions to address their problems, for example facilitating equitable access to available fresh water in a neighbourhood rather than providing more resource-intensive large-scale water supply systems. Doing more with lesser means, their ranks will also require uniform accessibility to solution seekers and providers among local communities, and to interdisciplinary knowledge generators engaged in the problems they face and related challenges. In contrast to high rankings in well-funded scientific-technological knowledge institutions, these universities will also require greater investment in bringing together human resources with strengths necessary for in situ problem-solving. Their openness to integration across classes, cultures, skill sets and genders will help them host students and resource persons from both the Global and the Local South, including relatively marginalised communities within the Global South.

Scoring and ranking of transdisciplinary institutions and efforts should also consider publications. Vernacular and multilingual open-access publications will facilitate inclusivity of participants involved in all phases of devising and enacting a relevant solution or change. Individual contributions should also become the norm for a transdisciplinary hub. Criteria for quantifying impacts need to be derived in a citizen-driven process as well. Yet, inclusive institutions generating knowledge for locally impactful changes will require collaborations beyond political cleavages. Alternative ranking of transdisciplinary efforts and institutions in the Global South, though, can coexist with established academic rankings of world universities and criteria for evaluation.

Furthermore, considering the aforementioned gap between the time needed for scientific research and the urgent need to find solutions, grassroots transdisciplinary activities should be acknowledged when evaluating academic productivity. This recommendation applies to both faculty members and students. To what extent, then, would publishing an article in a journal to be probably read by dozens of researchers be more important than collaborating in solving immediate needs of hundreds or thousands of people? In cases of transdisciplinary work, both are equally relevant while either of them alone would not suffice. Similarly, involvement of students in field activities and in interacting with locals would be counted as academic credits, as they are in many socially oriented educational institutions. Last, but not least, universities and research funding institutions should consider announcing in their calls for applications, relevance of citizen observatories as durable gateways connecting researchers and actors from outside their campuses. Such an explicit announcement for transdisciplinary academics for continuously monitoring and solving problems perceived and felt by society, is the way to co-construct useful knowledge that can contribute to neutralising denialist arguments that flourish while bridging the rift between science and the real world.

Notes

2

Complex problems are different from difficult challenges. While the latter can be solved, the former can only be dealt with, as they are in constant change and thus solutions are never definitive.

4

https://cpact.snu.edu.in/ (accessed on 2 December 2021).

6

https://azimpremjiuniversity.edu.in/ (accessed on 2 December 2021).

7

Professional Assistance for Development Action: https://www.pradan.net/ (accessed on 2 December 2021).

9

https://www.indiaobservatory.org.in/ (accessed on 30 November 2021).

11

A data paper is an article on research data that describes the data produced during a research process (methodology, process, material used, link to the warehouse where the data is located and so on). See: https://openarchiv.hypotheses.org/4126 (accessed on 28 February 2022).

13

http://inct-odisseia.i3gs.org/ (accessed on 10 November 2021).

Funding

This article is part of the research activities of the project INCT no 16-2014 ODISSEIA, with funding from CNPq/Capes/FAPDF.

Acknowledgements

Authors gratefully acknowledge the support provided by Vidya P.S, Research Fellow at Azim Premji University and the very useful comments received from the editors and anonymous reviewers.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • 1 University of Brasília, , Brazil
  • | 2 Azim Premji University, , India

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