Interdisciplinary research, multidisciplinary research, transdisciplinary research – we certainly have many names for the concept. The definitions for these terms have varied and evolved over the years, and depend on who is asked.
As early as the 1970s, it was realised that it was necessary to combine different fundamental disciplines so that complex problems may be understood and explained. At Linköping University a separate department for interdisciplinary research was established at the beginning of the 1980s – the Tema Institute. The objective was to concentrate efforts on different themes. Research was to be of high standard by developing cooperation between different social scientific and natural scientific disciplines and the humanities.
Water in nature and society
From the beginning there were four themes, one of which had a clear environmental profile – Tema Water in Nature and Society. The aim was to focus on the interplay between humans, land and water. For a long time, society had been cocooned in a false sense of security that breakthroughs in natural and social sciences made ever increasing exploiation of nature possible. And if there were any adverse consequences, the same fields of science would deal with these as and when they occurred.
When Tema Water in Nature and Society started, many realised that problems to do with the environment and resources are a consequence of the way we manage natural resources. These problems must be tackled from a number of angles, by linking together studies of social scientific and natural scientific orientation. Today, we can conclude that this overarching argumentation is still valid for socially relevant and problem oriented research.
Quality was questioned
The pioneers of interdisciplinary research encountered two types of resistance when they tried to establish and conduct their research. One of the problems was getting finance for this research which went right across disciplinary boundaries. Both research funding agencies and colleagues who evaluated research applications were sceptical and critical of the new approach. The quality of research was questioned. In the same way, it was difficult to find appropriate journals to publish the new findings. Here also quality was questioned. This criticism still persists, but to a lesser extent.
Transdisciplinary research at Formas
For the past three years, Formas has advertised an annual call for grant applications for transdisciplinary research. This call has a separate expert panel, with special rules for the evaluation of the research applications. Naturally, the aim is to ensure that new interdisciplinary problems can find finance.
Over the past two years, Formas has financed interdisciplinary research in environmental technology, with the focus on developing new methods to remove phosphoruis from sewage effluent in rural areas. Another project concerns the development of methods to deal with the effects of discharges of medicines into the environment. Money has also been allocated to a project that deals with risk assessment of the effects that both leisure boats and commercial traffic have on the ecosystem of the Baltic Sea. One project deals with resource effective production of energy from renewable sources, while another concerns the development of new biomaterials for e.g. the production of nappies.
There are thus a number of interesting projects over a broad field within Formas' entire sphere of responsibility. I hope that you will find the articles in this issue of Sustainability interesting, inspiring and informative.
is Secretary General of Formas