Researchers still reluctant to embrace transdisciplinary collaboration
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Researchers still reluctant to embrace transdisciplinary collaboration

Without scientific knowledge, we won’t be able to tackle the grand challenges of the 21st century: climate change, energy transition, social inequality and coronavirus, for example. Professor by Special Appointment of the Social Value of Science Laurens Hessels is therefore calling for more transdisciplinary collaboration. ‘Researchers are still reluctant to seek out such collaboration when this is the key to the wicked problems in society.’ Inaugural lecture on 24 June.

Researchers still reluctant to embrace transdisciplinary collaboration
Laurens Hessels. Credit: Laura Marienus (Rathenau Instituut).

All too often, scientists only share their results with people from the field once their research has been completed. ‘There’s a strict division of labour between asking a question and providing an answer,’ Hessels explains. ‘Transdisciplinary collaboration is just the opposite. As a researcher, you develop the question and seek an answer together with those with experience in the field. You talk to the knowledge user before, during and after the research.’

Hessels gained experience in transdisciplinary collaboration a few years ago when he helped set up the Water Quality Knowledge Impulse Programme. ‘In the water sector, many people work day in and day out at the controls of a water treatment plant or collecting samples in the field. They know all sorts of details that researchers can use, which makes it a waste to only talk to them afterwards.’

More mainstream

Although the value of transdisciplinary collaboration would seem obvious, it is still a far from common working method. ‘In the 20th century, science was increasingly professionalised and grouped into scientific disciplines,’ says Hessels. ‘To put it bluntly, a myth has developed that you have to cut yourself off from influences from society to produce the most efficient and reliable new knowledge possible.’

At the same time, Hessels can see that the academic world is currently in a state of flux. ‘Thanks to open science, much is changing in the way researchers communicate with one another and the outside world. And it’s becoming more mainstream to seek out collaboration with civil society, but we still need to learn how to do so properly.’ Hessels is therefore conducting research into the conditions that facilitate transdisciplinary collaboration and make it a success.

To measure is to know

One of the priorities of Hessels’ research is evaluating how transdisciplinary collaboration benefits society. ‘Obviously, you can’t measure all value to society nor can you always determine a clear causal link between research and impact. The route I want to take will therefore focus not only on the outcome but also on the process: the research activities and the contacts and productive interactions with people in the field. We know that you need productive interactions to generate impact, so it’s worth measuring these.’

What about the value to society of his chair? ‘I’m not working directly on a social issue, but this chair does offer good channels to interact with the knowledge users in my domain. My main hope is to encourage more transdisciplinary collaboration in the future.’

The chair in Social Value of Science is at the Leiden University Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS). It was established and is funded by the Rathenau Institute, where Hessels works as a senior researcher.

Text: Julie de Graaf