Canadian Science Policy Fellows’ Corner: Redefining research, a new approach to knowledge generation in Canada

“…That word…I do not think it means what you think it means”
Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

The final plenary of this year’s Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) was a rousing discussion on “Converging Science: Fostering Innovation Through a New Model of Transdisciplinary Research.” Three panelists, Alan Bernstein, Graham Carr, and Ilse Truernicht, moderated by Darren Gilmour, discussed the need for new research systems that integrate knowledge, span disciplines, and value diverse experiences. The panelists identified the convergence of science as instrumental in addressing complex societal problems and spawning new technologies and economic endeavours. A widely tweeted call was made for universities and major Canadian funding agencies to put systems in place that will foster engagement across disciplines. The discussion was engaging, fruitful — and missing an essential element.

Transdisciplinary research is, by definition, all that the panelists described and, crucially, more. According to Brandt et al, in a 2013-article from Ecological Economics, it is “a research approach that includes multiple scientific disciplines (interdisciplinarity) focusing on shared problems and the active input of practitioners from outside academia.” It extends far beyond the ivory tower and involves entirely new approaches to knowledge generation. Transdisciplinarity has been the subject of extensive academic scrutiny over the past decade for the exact same reasons as those highlighted by the panel: current societal problems — like climate change or antimicrobial resistance — are too complex to be solved by a single discipline or societal sector.

This is both the value, and the challenge, of transdisciplinary research. Its issue-driven nature often up-ends the traditional scientific research process. Transdisciplinarity demands collaboratively defined problems, methodological approaches, and knowledge generation — often at the expense of long-standing disciplinary-specific methods and theories. For example, what may appear to a civil engineer to be a simple flood-protection infrastructure issue may be viewed as a product of complex human-nature interactions by a human geographer, sea-level rise by an oceanographer, or longstanding social and ecological norms by a holder of traditional ecological knowledge. Reconciling those views of the problem to produce a single research question can be extremely time-consuming and challenging.

Transdisciplinary research and associated research methods require that researchers practice flexibility and humility. It is often extremely uncomfortable for disciplinary researchers. This is because it can force confrontations with our basic understandings of truth in ways rarely encountered while counting bacteria on petri dishes in the lab. It costs time, money, and patience — all entities in short supply in modern academies. It is also extremely rewarding and can build relationships and understanding far beyond what is possible within even interdisciplinary approaches.

The conclusions reached by the panel at CSPC are absolutely correct in their calls for greater practice, integration, and funding of transdiciplinarity. However, these calls will benefit further from the integration of insights of those who regularly practice and study transdisciplinary research. This will enable a more rapid incorporation of transdisciplinary best practices. Perhaps most importantly, it will also facilitate the incorporation of all perspectives and viewpoints necessary to address the complex challenges that currently threaten our ongoing existence on this planet.

This blog post was contributed to Mitacs. The views or opinions expressed within belong solely to the author and do not represent those of Mitacs or the institutions or organizations that the author may be associated with.

The Canadian Science Policy Fellowship is made possible thanks to Professor Sarah Otto, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia; participating federal agencies and departments; the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy; and Mitacs’ Science Policy Fellowship Advisory Council.


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