Higher education Science policy
Transdisciplinary research: a recipe for sectoral capture
February 21, 2017
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Now that I’ve put pen to paper and presented the notion of sectoral capture, I can finally put it to use! In this post, I’ll be exploring how sectoral capture is not only a huge risk in transdisciplinary research, but is actually embedded in the very definition of transdisciplinary research itself, calling for us to rethink that activity and find it a more appropriate name. Of course, for this we’ll need to explore the definition of transdisciplinary research, which is where this post starts off.

Noting that the definitions of these terms are far from clear or universally agreed upon, Wagner et al. encapsulated nicely the relationship between multi-, inter- and transdisciplinarity. Each of these terms relates to crossing boundaries in a particular way:

  • Multidisciplinarity refers to team composition and perspectives, pulling in skill sets from across disciplinary lines, but producing a result that is no different from the sum of its parts. Various disciplines are brought together, but none of them is changed as a result of the interaction, they’re just pieced together.
  • Interdisciplinarity goes one step further, producing a result that synthesizes and integrates the various disciplinary raw materials, enriching them into an outcome that is greater than the simple sum of parts. This usually involves some manner of epistemic richness: a holistic or systems approach, casting new light both on the problem at hand and on the individual perspectives being integrated.
  • Transdisciplinarity goes one step further still. Whereas multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to research remain fundamentally within the disciplinary circle, drawing on a range of academic perspectives, transdisciplinarity involves a transcendence of the disciplinary framework as a whole—basically a fancy way of saying that it engages people outside of the academic sphere.

And this is where I think that transdisciplinary research runs full force into the problem of sectoral capture. Recall that various forms of capture occur when one group—along with their epistemological, institutional, cultural and psychological specificities—is allowed to be primary in what is supposed to be a mutual endeavour, defined collectively by all members. Disciplinary capture happens when one discipline in a multi-, inter- or transdisciplinary team is allowed a primary role in defining the process or goals for a project, where other groups in the team are only allowed a secondary role, subject to the judgment of the primary group. Sectoral capture happens in the same way, simply subbing in primary sectors for primary disciplines in the description above.

What else is a transdisciplinary research project but an open admission of sectoral capture? As long as we conceive of these projects as research projects before all else, then the priorities of the researchers in the group will always come before the priorities of others. Similarly, as long as we conceive of these projects having disciplinary structure as the major hurdle that they must transcend, then we are tacitly prioritizing the sphere in which disciplinary structure exists—that is, the world of academic research.

What else is a transdisciplinary research project but an open admission of sectoral capture? Click To Tweet

If transdisciplinary research is really meant to transcend disciplinary and academic barriers, to engage the research enterprise with a broad range of stakeholders (e.g., addressing healthcare issues by integrating health and technology researchers with public health policymakers, technology development and production companies, front-line healthcare professionals, and the patients they treat), then we have a framing problem. To frame it primarily in terms of “knowledge production” already downplays the importance of actually implementing that knowledge in a system that addresses the principal problems to be addressed, while considering the human, financial and technical resources available, and in a way that is acceptable to the population to be treated.

What if the primary roadblock to this problem turned out not to be a lack of knowledge on a given subject, but rather a lack of awareness and understanding within the user community, such that available knowledge just couldn’t be adapted to its relevant context? In that case, researchers definitely have a valuable role to play as knowledge brokers, experts in the subject matter at hand, but can they really be said to be conducting transdisciplinary research if there is not any new knowledge being created—if there isn’t any “research” at all, in a strict sense? (Similarly, it places a disproportionate burden on the research community for the success or failure of these projects, as they are the specialists in research after all.) I believe that this kind of project, the example described above, is perfectly within the crosshairs of the spirit of transdisciplinary research, but talking about it as transdisciplinary research completely undercuts the viability of this kind of project under that heading.

And the words matter here, because these form the basis of funding support, professional advancement, and the other very tangible factors that influence how and whether researchers will engage in these sorts of projects. Of course, an alternative to taking issue with the term transdisciplinary research is simply to take issue with the definition of research itself, to encompass not only knowledge production, but also its integration into practical contexts, conferring with broad ranges of stakeholders, etc. However, while I seldom shy away from proposals simply for being bold—and in fact appreciate that such an approach would likely result in much more research being transdisciplinary—I also think that broadening the conception of research in this way is far less likely to happen. By contrast, trying to correct our notion of transdisciplinary research seems like a potentially feasible project.

So what am I proposing? First off, the name “transdisciplinary research” has got to go. Defining such projects primarily as research already gives the whole game away, as does defining them as facing disciplinary divides as their primary hurdle. Divides between sectors are challenges just as serious as those between disciplines—perhaps more so, even. Furthermore, these projects ideally have a multiplicity of outcomes, including knowledge creation, but also new policies and programs, and new activities. So why not call them “trans-sectoral activities,” a suitably bland name that will allow a suitably broad range of projects to be fit thereunder.

This name also retains one important virtue of transdisciplinarity: the disciplines being integrated are actually affected by this integration, the way that they relate to each other evolves in virtue of the interaction. Similarly, the way in which the various sectors relate to each other will hopefully evolve as a result of their interaction. For instance, promoting discussion between government agencies, academic researchers and the general public will change the way that they view and interact with each other; this can take tangible form in altered practice, such as engaging public consultations in new ways.

Second, beyond changing the name of this activity, I think that discussions such as this one are important to have, in order to unpack these concepts, understand the philosophical, institutional and cultural tensions that call for us to promote these practices in the first place. Even if we decide never to change the name, understanding why the name does and does not fit well with various aspects of the activity is valuable. After all, if there were no such underlying tensions, we would have no need to promote the activity to overcome them, or to find it a name.


Note: All views expressed are those of the individual author and are not necessarily those of Science-Metrix or 1science.


About the author

Brooke Struck

Brooke Struck is the Senior Policy Officer at Science-Metrix in Montreal, where he puts his background in philosophy of science to good use in helping policy types and technical types to understand each other a little better every day. He also takes gleeful pleasure in unearthing our shared but buried assumptions, and generally gadfly-ing everyone in his proximity. He is interested in policy for science as well as science for policy (i.e., evidence-based decision-making), and is progressively integrating himself into the development of new bibliometric indicators at Science-Metrix to address emerging policy priorities. Before working at Science-Metrix, Brooke worked for the Canadian Federal Government. He holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Guelph and a BA with honours in philosophy from McGill University.

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