IEEE Systems, Man and Cybernetics Magazine - October 2019 - 13

siloed learning and thinking if we are to transform SMC
into an exemplar of transdisciplinarity. This is not to say
that everyone should be trained in this manner. There is,
and always will be, significant value in scientists who have
degrees in only one domain and have extremely deep
knowledge in that one area. This argument is twofold: 1)
we need to increase the number of scientists who are
trained in a diverse manner with both knowledge of
breadth and depth, and 2) scientists who are being trained
in a single domain (without an interdisciplinary focus)
must, at a minimum, have an understanding and consider-
ation of different perspectives.

being communicated. Language used in one community,
while useful and logical in that community (based on aca-
demic training), may not make sense to colleagues in other
communities (who have different academic training).

The Actual Need for Transdisciplinarity
Not all research should or needs to be transdisciplinary.
As modern scientists, we often get caught up in the pur-
suit of transdisciplinarity when it is not needed. More
transdisciplinary research is a good thing, but we must be
aware that many problems do not require it (more on this
in the next section). Often, we see a call for a grant that
requires a diverse team, or we know that our team will be
looked at more favorably if we have an interdisciplinary
A Shared and Common Language
team. But recent research shows that it is easier to
Transdisciplinary research is often riddled with lan-
guage and communication problems. A recent National
acquire grant funding from a single-domain perspective
Academies of Science study focused
than one that is interdisciplinary
[8]. Being transdisciplinary for the
on the area of team science high-
sole purpose of being transdisci-
lighted the challenges associated
plinary does not necessarily mean
with this type of work [7]. Due to
Transdisciplinary
you will be better aligned to
most transdisciplinary research
research is often
acquire funding or, more impor-
occurring via groups of scientists
tantly, to push the needle of sci-
trained in different domains, each
riddled with language
ence in the right direction. There
domain has a very specific lan-
and communication
has to be a root cause shared
guage associated with it. A favorite
problems.
among disciplines to put together
example of this that continually
an interdisciplinary team and to
rears its ugly head is the use of the
study something in a transdisci-
word model. To social scientist col-
plinary manner.
leagues, a model often refers to a
Many research projects require investigation that
theoretical framework that explains a social behavior at an
involves a team of scientists across a diversity of disci-
individual, group, or societal level. Yet, to computationally
plines. Yet, there are many that do not, and research teams
focused colleagues, a model is different, often alluding to a
still seek out different team members for the wrong rea-
mathematical model requiring computation to explain a
sons. Devising an interdisciplinary team for purposes out-
technical system. The use of this word usually plays out in
side of the scientific aspects of the project is foolhardy and
the following way: both sides will be using the word model,
also waters down the potential impact that real transdisci-
and over time, they will both figure out that they are refer-
plinary research can deliver. Simply put, transdisciplinari-
ring to different things, which then necessities a conversa-
ty is needed when the science calls for it. Scientists and
tion where each side defines what they mean. This also
researchers should be cautionary and carefully examine
often results in the group revisiting their previous conver-
what they want to study and then systematically deter-
sation with the realization that they were discussing funda-
mine whether multiple perspectives from different
mentally different things. This process is not overly
domains bring something to the table.
productive or efficient, but it is one that routinely happens
repeatedly in transdisciplinary efforts.
The question becomes, how do we avoid these misunder-
Problem Space Requirements
standings? The answer is simple but difficult to implement
One way to evaluate whether science needs transdiscipli-
without creating a shared catalog of scientific words. At the
narity is to focus on the problem. The scientific problem
beginning of any transdisciplinary collaboration, the team
typically dictates and lends itself to discovering whether
should attempt to produce a shared word repository. Scien-
there is a need for a set of diverse scientific perspectives.
tists from each domain should think about common words
As previously noted, there is not always a need for multiple
they use and define them for the larger group. This is not a
perspectives. Yet, increasingly often, this type of work is
catchall, and there will still be many words that are con-
required. In general, problems are not getting simpler.
fused, but it goes a long way toward alleviating common
Many large scientific problems are currently grounded
linguistic misinterpretations. In addition, people should be
within multiple scientific systems. An easy example of this
aware that they are working with people from different
type of problem space is climate change. Climate change
domains, and they should strive to overcommunicate. This
demands transdisciplinary work to fully understand the
means going the extra mile to specifically explain what is
concept and potential impacts ([9], from 1977, calls for
O c tob e r 2019

IEEE SYSTEMS, MAN, & CYBERNETICS MAGAZINE

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IEEE Systems, Man and Cybernetics Magazine - October 2019

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