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The Importance of Transdisciplinarity to Address Synergies and Trade-offs

Cityscape showing interconnected dots

The world is a complex network of relationships shaped by forces that sometimes contrast and other times reinforce each other. This understanding is at the core of the One Health approach: studying and understanding the world in general and health in particular requires a systemic approach. This is even more important when researchers want to produce policy recommendations that achieve the desired goals with minimal unintended consequences.

From depth to breadth

Over the last few decades, some researchers have been slowly moving away from hyper-specialized and segmented studies towards more integrated approaches combining disciplines and research methods in order to provide more complete answers. This same approach is particularly important when studying how to address the most pressing trade-offs faced by humankind described by the Sustainable Development Goals. The policies suggested to achieve these goals are sometimes pulling in opposite directions, generating trade-off, while other times they cooperate producing positive synergies. In order to achieve all the goals in the most effective and efficient way it is necessary to expand our horizon beyond each specific discipline.

First step: Multidisciplinarity

Multidisciplinarity is the first step in studying a complex system by adding together the points of view of different disciplines. For example, policymakers will propose different sets of policies to achieve SDG5 – Gender Equality if they receive inputs only from sociologist or if perspectives from psychology, sociology, economics, medicine, history, etc. are taken into consideration.

Second step: Interdisciplinarity
Men fishing in boats

Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels

However, multidisciplinarity is not sufficient to completely understand a complex system and the impact of different policies on it. In fact, often it is necessary not only to observe the issue at hand using tools from different disciplines, but also to understand how the forces studied by each discipline interact with each other and jointly shape the issue under observation. For example, simply banning fishing to achieve SDG14 – Life Below Water might not be the right choice in every setting. Especially in poorer areas, this could severely affect the livelihood of local fishermen, generating resentment and conflict instead of cooperation and support making it more difficult to achieve the goal. Studying how this environmental law affects economic and cultural forces could lead to policies that more effectively and efficiently address the issue.

Third step: Transdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinarity still retains clear separations among disciplines and it is still applied to exclusively scientific disciplines. In recent times, a further approach has been gaining traction: Transdisciplinarity. A holistic approach that merges together all the disciplines, including humanities, pushing them beyond their boundaries and aiming for the unity of knowledge. This is a novelty, meaning that scientists are still developing the research methods that will allow to implement this approach.

The Near Future: Citizen-Science

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In particular, the inclusion of humanities increased the relevance of not only understanding the world, but also to communicate new discoveries, collaborate with stakeholders, and, in general, engage with non-scientists to generate larger and more durable changes.  When paired with artificial intelligence, big data, and increasing levels of education and connectivity of the world population, this approach opens the door to the science of the future: citizen science. Where everyone can actively collaborate to improve the understanding of the world and to actively answer the challenges of the trade-offs described by the SDGs.

Visit our Circular Health Initiative page to see how the One Health Center is connecting disciplines and working towards the SDGs.

By Dr. Luca Mantegazza, One Health Center Research Coordinator

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