THE INSTITUTIONALIZATION OF TRANSDISCIPLINARITY IN UNIVERSITIES : ORGANIZATION AND TOOLS. B. Giovannini Center for Energy Studies, University of Geneva

INTRODUCTION

 

A closer collaboration between science and society is widely viewed as one of the important elements for a better handling of many complex problems, like sustainable development. When working in close collaboration with stakeholders and decision makers, academics have found that they were encouraged  to work beyond the traditional partition in disciplines, and also beyond the traditional methods of interdisciplinarity, thus contributing to the more general goal of "transdisciplinarity".

 

They have also found that the types of problems they thought very important were not always the same as the ones decision makers in society deemed relevant. A good example is given by the energy problem. It is well established that in order to protect the future climate of the earth, fossil fuel has to be used in a much more efficient way than today. The first studies on the potential of energy efficiency were published in the early seventies, in particular by the American Institute of Physics and by A.Lovins (AIP, 1975; Lovins, 1975). These studies have shown early that the potential for energy efficiency is quite large, and that  a substantial part of this potential is economically efficient. Very little of this potential has been realised in the 25 years since, and this is correctly attributed to the fact that obstacles to energy efficiency are not technical or economical, but psychological and social. Transdisciplinary definition of training programs have indeed shown that there is very little demand on the side of decision makers for lectures on the technicalities of energy efficiency. What is asked for, and needed, are implementation tools: participative techniques, methods in communication and conflict resolution and so on. This is an example where transdisciplinarity not only makes research more efficient, but also reorients  it.

 

Still the same kind of technico-economical studies keep being published (Weiszäcker, 1997) that still contain very little reference to what is  the central problem: implementation in the social and psychological realities of today's world.

 

A close collaboration between science and society has been limited so far to a certain class of problems, which almost imperatively demand it: development of technologies, land and urban management, perhaps some areas of medicine and so on. In other areas, like the preservation of biodiversity, or the large problems linked with globalization, or the problems of climate change, this collaboration needs to be developed and strengthened.

 

In the full paper, I will also review the basic definitions and the practice of transdisciplinarity (Giovannini and Revéret, 1999) in the particular field of sustainable development, the concepts, the methodologies and some examples, emphasizing obstacle and difficulties which have to be overcome in order to establish a useful transdisciplinary dialogue.

 

Some people would argue that this problematics of transdisciplinarity must be left to the initiative of individual researchers. Others would argue that it took many years to understand that interdisciplinarity needs special institutional settings. It is not enough to ask that "different disciplines should collaborate closely", one must also fund, protect, officially support this kind of activities. The same must hold true for transdisciplinarity. The reason for this fact is that inter- or transdisciplinarity require special knowledge and skills about project leadership, programme management, contacts, networking, organization of proper dialogue capabilities and so on. It would not only be unpractical  to expect scientists to all become experts in all these activities, it would be wrong. The principle job of the majority of scientists is to produce good science, not to spend time in exploring these difficult methodologies. The job of preparing, defining, co-ordinating, managing inter- or transdisciplinary projects must be taken over in special institutional settings.

 

But which institutional settings ?

 

ORGANIZATION OF TRANSDISCIPLINARITY

 

The possibilities are :

 

1) Special Programmes like the Priority Programme in Switzerland or the Forschungsschwerpunkt "Kulturlandschaft" in Austria

 

2) Action Centers as proposed in a Report of the Swiss Science Council (1998), whose purpose is to examine in details a research programme before it is actually launched.

 

3) Strategy Centers, as proposed by the Annual Report 1996 of the German Advisory Council on Global Change, whose purpose would to be bring together researchers and decision makers into a continuing collaboration in order to:

 

            - contribute jointly to the analysis of the problems;

 

            - bring to the attention of decision makers potentially interesting ideas from the world of           research and discuss the potential applicability and relevance of these ideas;

 

            - discuss possible future research and training orientations for the academic community                  from the needs of decision makers.

 

4) Transdisciplinary networks, which would bring together scientists from different universities with similar interests.

 

In the full paper, I will analyze these possiblilities with their potential advantages and difficulties.

 

TOOLS FOR TRANSDISCIPLINARITY

 

Transdisciplinarity also needs special tools for establishing an efficient and useful dialogue between academics and society. A particularly promising tool is the « Policy Dialogue ».

 

The primary objective of policy dialogues is to assist both international and national policy makers and decision makers in governments, non-governmental organisations, and the private sector in addressing the major environmental challenges of sustainable development, through a substantive and creative dialogue, outside of formal fora. These dialogues aim to facilitate and potentially influence decision-making processes.

 

Policy dialogues have been organized in order :

 

•           to develop new insights on complex policy issues and implementation strategies;

•           to broaden or deepen understanding of decision makers by exposing them to other perspectives, and sharing experiences;

•           to encourage the formulation of options and recommendations towards the resolution of a particular issue;

•           to raise the level of consensus amongst participants;

•           to promote contacts amongst individuals in a common field of interest that could lead to future networking and exchange.

 

Policy dialogues are not a formal negotiation (although they can contribute to the negotiating process); they are not a scientific workshop or seminar aimed at developing or reviewing a research paper (although they will usually involve scientific experts as participants); and they  are not a didactic training session (although they will be a learning experience and promote insights through a stimulating exchange among equals).

 

The complete presentation will present lessons learned in the organization of about fifteen Policy Dialogues in the last years.

 

Training of high level decision makers (in so-called Executive Seminars)can also be viewed as a promising tool for transdisciplinarity.

 

REFERENCES

 

AIP (1975) Efficient Use of Energy, AIP Conference Proceedings, No 25, American Institute of Physics, New York.

 

Giovannini, B. and Revéret, J.-P. (1999) Definition and Practice of Transdisciplinarity for Sustainable Development, Preprint, to be published.

 

Lovins, A.B. (1975)  World Energy Strategies  Ballinger, Cambridge, Mass.

 

von Weiszäcker, E.,Lovins, A.B. and Lovins L.H. (1997) Factor Four  Earthscan, London