Transdisciplinary research – what is it and why is it difficult?

One of the core goals of Imperial is to do transdisciplinary research. What does this mean?

Normal disciplinary research is easy to see. This means chemists work on chemistry problems, engineers work on engineering problems, business people work on business problems.

In the real world though, few research questions fit neatly into a discipline.

An example: improving solar panels

Three researchers in hi-vis vests discuss a solar panel, with the distinctive shape of Queen's Tower in the background.
Solar panels on the roof of the Electrical Engineering Building at Imperial’s South Kensington campus. Which research discipline develops solar panels: is it chemistry, business or engineering? Imperial College 86092

Suppose you’re concerned about climate change. You want to help the world transition towards using renewable energy sources. You think improving solar panels is a good way to do this. Is this a chemistry problem, an engineering problem or a business problem?

  • Improving the chemistry of the photovoltaic cell so it captures more energy from sunlight is good – but what if this makes the panels difficult to manufacture, or too expensive for most homes and businesses?
  • Improving the engineering of a solar panel so it’s completely recyclable (cradle-to-cradle manufacturing) is good – but not if this significantly reduces energy capture or makes them too expensive to install.
  • Improving the economic attractiveness of solar panels, for example with grants or being able to resell excess energy to the grid, is good – but not if the panels themselves are polluting to make or don’t generate enough energy to make a difference to your carbon footprint.

Working with disciplines in parallel

So the quick answer to this is to get three researchers – a chemist, an engineer and a business person – in a room and they all work on the problem together. It can be difficult because the researchers are likely to have different vocabulary to describe the issues they see, and have different ideas about what matters. Have you ever got frustrated because somebody just didn’t understand you, or because they just don’t think the thing that matters to you is important? Yup, researchers too.

But a lot of this kind of research gets done. There are people who really like these difficult cross-cultural conversations. Which is good, isn’t it?

Working with disciplines braided together

There’s a minority of people who take this further, and learn to think in more than one discipline at the same time. Like being bilingual, but it’s also like having two sets of values at the same time.

This was me! I studied chemistry, and then applied it to archaeological textiles. I had to learn to understand a little piece of medieval wool textile as a valuable imported object (economics, history), an example of vaðmál (technology studies), a sample of sheep hair (agriculture), a sample of keratin (protein science), and an indicator of an ancient ecosystem (biogeochemistry). That was deeply satisfying for me, and I can’t really explain why. But it’s not to everyone’s taste.

A sample of medieval Icelandic wool textile
A sample of medieval Icelandic wool textile. This is an indicator of money, technology, culture, an ecosystem and/or sheep farming, depending on which discipline you use to analyse it. From my own transdisciplinary research experience.

IMSE is transdisciplinary

Working across disciplines is not just what we do but who we are at IMSE. So among IMSE Affiliates, we have teams of researchers who are:

IMSE is one of the initiatives that Imperial has taken to promote research that spans disciplinary boundaries. We tackle this problem in a number of ways:

Your gut feeling

What’s your attitude to disciplines? Are you naturally drawn to one, or do you like overlapping contrasting ways of thinking?

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