Linking transdisciplinary sustainability research with governance

By Jens Newig

On attending the 2nd International Conference on Public Policy (ICPP 2015) in Milan, I would like to share some thoughts on the relationship of transdisciplinary research and the governance of science-policy interactions.

For those of us working in sustainability and environmental studies, transdisciplinarity (Hirsch Hadorn, Pohl, Scholz, Lang, Bergmann, …) has become an important feature. Some prefer the terms “mode 2 science” (Nowotny, Gibbons) or “post-normal science” (Funtowicz and Ravetz). They all refer essentially to the participation of non-academics in academic processes, aiming to democratise research and to produce better and societally more relevant (“socially robust”) research outputs. Whether we see it as a new mantra, or as a mere necessity to produce knowledge relevant to solving today’s looming environmental sustainability problems – it is virtually impossible to ignore transdisciplinarity when engaging in sustainability-relevant research.

Connecting academia and practice

At the well-attended ICPP 2015 plenary session on “Academics and practitioners, opposed or complementary?”, established scholars and policy-makers discussed different venues through which the academic sphere and that of policy-making are or could be linked.

The following list blends those points raised in the panel discussion, mainly by Leslie A. Pal and Rob Hoppe, with some of my own thoughts that immediately followed this. (For the purposes of simplification, I call those people outside academia who are to some degree influential in what they do “decision-makers”).

So what are those interfaces between academia and practice?

  • Decision-makers have typically themselves gone through a university education, perhaps up to PhD level or beyond.
  • Some decision-makers publish in (academic) journals.
  • Some decision-makers even read academic journals.
  • Countless think tanks, established by policy-makers themselves, consult policy-makers
  • Decision-makers selectively draw on consultants for particular purposes, and those consultants sometimes engage more with the academic sphere than do policy-makers in their day-to-day practice.
  • Some decision-makers attend (academic) conferences and exchange here with academics.
  • ‘Public intellectuals’ publish their ideas in newspapers, bridging academia and public opinion.
  • Boundary workers who, through participation in academia and in practice, facilitate co-production of knowledge.

Why is transdisciplinarity not mentioned?

Surprisingly, to me at least, transdisciplinarity, mode 2, post-normal science – those concepts that appear as the epitome of science-practitioner interaction – none of them were even mentioned in this 90-minute plenary panel.

How can this be? Perhaps most obviously, different academic discourses do not diffuse evenly into scholarly communities. Transdisciplinarity might in comparison still be a niche discourse. This does not mean that it should not be important to other fields of research, too. Exchanging about this is of course why conferences such as ICPP are important.

Another reason could be that the discourse on transdisciplinarity is much focused on (funded) research projects. Projects are limited in scope and time, often short-term, which makes on-going interaction between science and practice more difficult. Hence what Rob Hoppe – one of the plenary speakers – calls the preoccupation of transdisciplinary sustainability scholars with trust-building, whereas classical ‘policy analysts’ in other areas tend to have more stable relationships with decision-making (see

Third, as someone with experience in leading and studying transdisciplinary projects (→ project MONA), my impression is the following: By calling for an involvement of non-academics into research, and even an empowerment of practitioners (Brandt et al. 2013), transdisciplinary researchers (often implicitly) assume academic research to be on the side of those who are in power to decide. The plenary discussion at ICPP showed, however, that practitioners tend to see things quite differently. For public decision-makers, the point of departure is public decision-making (quite naturally), into which academics can or should be involved (through think-tanks and other mechanisms listed above). In their view, decision-makers have the power to decide, whereas academics just do research. Someone at the panel even mentioned a certain angst on the part of academics of being left out of decision-making.

The final point connects to the previous one. In response to my question of why transdisciplinarity did not figure in the said plenary, one of the panellists (I think it was Rob Hoppe) mentioned the typical normative stance of sustainability researchers in their desire for changing the world for the better, in Germany now hotly discussed under the label of “transformative science”. The general tendency at the panel was, however, to keep academia and policy-making apart (referred to as ‘demarcation’) lest we run into important legitimacy issues if researchers engage in decision-making themselves. Nevertheless, both worlds should of course connect, which is then referred to as ‘coordination’.

What role for governance?

These thoughts might sound awfully critical of transdisciplinary sustainability science. They are not. But perhaps they help us put transdisciplinarity into perspective and remind us that this is just one of many ways in which research and practice can connect. After all, we are still struggling to understand the pathways though which transdisciplinarity actually leads to an effective co-production of knowledge. This is what colleagues and I are trying to find evidence for, comparing 100 completed sustainability-related research projects (→ MONA).

So how does all this concern governance? As sustainability governance scholars, we should be aware of the multiple avenues through which we can interact with practitioners. Transdisciplinary research projects are one important way (with many different facets). Others are listed above. In particular, we might want to engage in boundary work, or connect with boundary organisations such as consultancies.

Regarding public sustainability governance, research funding organisations in particular should likewise take into account the multiplicity of research-practice interactions. While certain environment and sustainability-oriented funding programmes in Germany and Switzerland demand transdisciplinary interactions in projects they fund, the United Kingdom funding bodies are heavily concerned with the practical and societal impact generated through research (see Julia Leventon’s recent blog entry on Both of these approaches appear somewhat one-sided. One could consider, for example, encouraging and funding long-term interactions between research and policy, or creating and funding intermediary organisations that serve as institutionalised bridges between research and decision-making.


Brandt, P., Ernst, A., Gralla, F., Luederitz, C., Lang, D.J., Newig, J., Reinert, F., Abson, D.J., Von Wehrden, H. (2013) A review of transdisciplinary research in sustainability science. Ecological Economics 92, 1-15.

Funtowicz, S.O., Ravetz, J.R. (1993) Science for the post-normal age. Futures 25, 739-755.

Hirsch Hadorn, G., Hoffmann-Riem, H., Biber-Klemm, S., Grossenbacher-Mansuy, W., Joye, D., Pohl, C., Wiesmann, U., Zemp, E., (2008) Handbook of Transdisciplinary Research. Springer.

Hoppe, R. (2005) Rethinking the Science-Policy Nexus: from Knowledge Utilization and Science Technology Studies to Types of Boundary Arrangements. Poiesis Prax 3, 199-215.

Lang, D.J., Wiek, A., Bergmann, M., Stauffacher, M., Martens, P., Moll, P., Swilling, M., Thomas, C.J. (2012) Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. Sustainability Science 7, 25-43.

Nowotny, H., Scott, P., Gibbons, M. (2004) Re-thinking science. Knowledge and the public in an age of uncertainty. Polity Press, Oxford.

Stauffacher, M., Flüeler, T., Krütli, P., Scholz, R. (2008) Analytic and Dynamic Approach to Collaboration: A Transdisciplinary Case Study on Sustainable Landscape Development in a Swiss Prealpine Region. Systemic Practice and Action Research 21, 409-422.

Governing transformation to sustainability: A new blog on environmental and sustainability governance

By Jens Newig

Climate change; biodiversity loss; depletion of natural resources; air, water and soil pollution… humankind is facing enormous environmental challenges. Given an imperfect human nature, designing the ‘right’ institutions is a vital factor for bringing about the necessary change towards an ecologically more sustainable development.

In this blog, we will share ideas on designing and implementing institutions, policies, and governance processes across the broad area of environmental and sustainability governance. Our group – the Research Group on Governance, Participation and Sustainability, based at Leuphana University Lüneburg – studies polycentric decision-making in the public realm, and in particular the involvement of broader sectors of society in this. Our research is as much about effective steering (achieving substantive change towards sustainability) as it is about fair decision processes and democratic structures. Our perspective is mainly from political science, but blends approaches and insights from other fields such as human geography, sociology and social-ecological systems. While we approach environmental governance issues mostly form a social science perspective, we collaborate with colleagues in the natural sciences and also with non-scientists.

Politics and policy on multiple levels, from the very local to the global, working across scales, and involving a variety of stakeholders and process forms, from top-down policy implementation to processes of social learning in collaborative networks are at the center of our research. We ask whether and how participation and collaboration foster environmental sustainability. How can sustainability transitions be governed? How can we meet the challenges of governing global social-ecological telecoupled systems?

We set up this blog to share our thoughts on exciting new ideas, concepts or findings; but also on critical thoughts on recent books and articles; reflections on conferences; or simply to recommend and spread contributions we find interesting and useful. We understand this blog as an open forum, and invite readers to comment on our posts. We hope readers will find our contributions useful, and by this hope to contribute to the discourse on environmental and sustainability governance.