Transdisciplinary science is key to achieving sustainability

Coauthors Camellia Kodia, Jihye Hwang, Rebecca Barnes

Environmental change occurs at multiple scales and dimensions, exacerbating the complexity of the impacts on human and non-human beings, and affecting the ways of addressing those. Those include changes in the climate, loss of biodiversity, land degradation, availability of water for consumption, ocean acidification, and ozone depletion among others. Therefore, environmental change has long been one of the world’s common top international agendas, however, with not enough response and commitment to cope with its effects.

Frequently, the most vulnerable and affected groups of people are not included or considered when building and prioritizing research projects and scientific agendas. Recognizing that global environmental change requires a new approach that crosses disciplinary lines and engages societal partners from the start, a transdisciplinary approach has emerged from different sectors. This approach aims to co-create scientific knowledge with the participation of the different interested and affected parties in and by the problem through collaborative processes. 

What Transdisciplinary Science can provide to address environmental change complex problems?

Transdisciplinary (TD) science seeks integrated efforts by scientists in several fields, including government and non-governmental organizations, indigenous peoples and local communities, business industries and all the interested and affected parties, with the aim of increasing applicability to reality and generating comprehensive, integral and inclusive knowledge to co-create joint and diverse solutions.

TD science is characterized by cross-disciplinary scientific collaboration, and policy-making processes to promote synergistic interaction among the different actors to co-crate science. Throughout this iterative process, knowledge holders and users increasingly inform the science and policy-making dynamics to better adapt to environmental changes. It is essential for the active and leading role of the different parties, so, beyond academic boundaries, alternative forms of knowledge are able to emerge. The goal of TD science is to promote trust, openness, and collaboration so that academics, practitioners, and other interested parties can work together to decentralize academic boundaries and co-create appropriate and relevant knowledge and science according to the environmental challenges we currently face.

While still an emerging field that continues to evolve, there are good examples of using a transdisciplinary approach to science-making. The Belmont Forum Collaborative Research Actions (CRA) are international initiatives that aim to co-create transdisciplinary science to provide knowledge for understanding, mitigating and adapting to global environmental changes.

The SAM Consortium (Guiding the Pursuit for Sustainability by Co-developing a Sustainable Agriculture Matrix) funded through the Pathways 2020, and NICH-Arctic (From Nunavik to Iceland: Climate, Human and Culture through time across the coastal (sub) Arctic North Atlantic) funded through the Arctic 2019 – Science for Sustainability (Arctic II) are two such examples.

The SAM Consortium uses a TD approach to integrate biophysical and socio-economic components at a national scale to develop indicators to measure sustainable agriculture from environmental, economic, and social dimensions in Austria, Brazil, Ivory Coast, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Türkiye, and the United States. SAM aims to serve as a platform to enable dialogues among the different parties interested and involved in agriculture to collect and build data on the national level about socioeconomic and ecological drivers to quantify and visualize the impacts of current agricultural production on its future sustainability. One key collaboration within the project was between early career scientists from the US and China throughout iFarm was developed. iFarm is a platform implemented in four high schools and one partner university in the US and China, it provides unique opportunities for high school and undergraduate students to participate in sustainable agriculture research and develop valuable computer skills. 

Similarly, NICH-Arctic aims to explore culture-environment interactions in response to climate change in the subarctic North Atlantic. The project was carried out in collaboration with Avataq a non-profit organization to investigate the potential relationship between climate change and the cultural transitions that occurred in Nunavik, and includes disciplines such as climatology, archaeology, and culture work. With this collaboration was possible to document the climate changes, human occupation, land, and marine environment in the Kangiqsujuaqto region. Another important outcome of the project was the Face-to-face for climate: a dialogue on climate change with high school students who also learned some methods to document the past climate. 

Despite TD science’s significant advancements and results, some challenges have arisen through its development, for example, difficulties in engaging some interested parties due to lack of information, misunderstanding of the research problem, information overload, the need for openness to understand the biases of each other’s expertise, time scale to open the dialogue between the academic people and the stakeholders, and inappropriate funding schemes to allow participation. It is therefore essential to find ways to encourage people to speak out and share their ideas, perspectives and knowledge because all are important to co-create solutions that work for all. It is therefore key to open more spaces to continue co-creating the conditions for TD science to grow up and evolve accordingly to the current environmental crisis.  

Opportunities at SRI to enhance the TD community and work   

The SRI Congress was conceived as an event to bring together the Transdisciplinary (TD) global environmental change research community and to provide a gathering for transdisciplinary researchers and other interested parties to share their advancements and to engage at the science-policy-society interface. 

This partnership between Belmont Forum and Future Earth was formalized in 2018, to bring together a unique audience that spans science-policy-society in ways that can facilitate dialogues towards effective on-the-ground implementation of research results. Two conferences took place since then. The first version of the SRI was organized in 2021 in Australia and virtually, and the SRI 2022 was held in Pretoria, South Africa, also in a hybrid format. Together, both events brought into the dialogues on Transdisciplinary approaches about 4000 participants from more than 100 countries. 

The SRI Congress is also the main venue where all the Belmont Forum Collaborative Research Actions (CRAs) come together to have their kick-off, mid-term and end-term meetings to share experiences and co-produced knowledge when building TD science. Since its establishment, the Forum has successfully led 19 calls for research proposals, supporting 155 projects and more than 1,000 scientists and stakeholders, representing over 90 countries. This year 10 CRAs are organizing activities at the SRI to share their advancements in applying TD approaches to science-making for integrating diverse ways of knowing.

Furthermore, the TD approach will play an important role at the SRI2023, through different training workshops, innovative co-laboratories, dialogues, photo exhibitions, and more, to promote, share and celebrate the diversity of knowledge to be present at the congress.

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