Reflections on the 2014 Carey Lecture at the AAAS Forum on S&T Policy

Cherry A. Murray delivered the Carey Lecture last night at this year’s AAAS Forum on S&T Policy. I want to address one aspect of her talk here — the question of transdisciplinarity (TD, which I will also use for the adjective ‘transdisciplinary’) and its necessity to address the ‘big’ questions facing us.

As far as I could tell, Murray was working with her own definitions of disciplinary (D), multidisciplinary (MD), interdisciplinary (ID), and TD. In brief, according to Murray, D refers to single-discipline approaches to a problem, ID refers to two disciplines working together on the same problem, MD refers to more than two disciplines focused on the same problem from their own disciplinary perspectives, and TD refers to more than two disciplines working together on the same problem. Murray also used the term cross-disciplinary, which she did not define (to my recollection).

All these definitions are cogent. But do we really need a different term for two disciplines working on a problem together (ID) and more than two disciplines working on a problem together (TD)? Wouldn’t it be simpler just to use ID for more than one discipline?

I grant that there is no universally agreed upon definition of these terms (D, MD, ID, and TD). But basically no one who writes about these issues uses the definitions Murray proposed. And there is something like a rough consensus on what these terms mean, despite the lack of universal agreement. I discuss this consensus, and what these definitions mean for the issue of communication (and, by extension, cooperation) between and among disciplines here:10.1007/s11229-012-0179-7

I tend to agree that TD is a better approach to solving complex problems. But in saying this, I mean more than involving more than two disciplines. I mean involving non-academic, and hence non-disciplinary, actors in the process. It’s actually closer to the sort of design thinking that Bob Schwartz discussed in the second Science + Art session yesterday afternoon.

One might ask whether this discussion of terms is a distraction from Murray’s main point — that we need to think about solutions to the ‘big problems’ we face. I concede the point. But that is all the more reason to get our terms right, or at least to co-construct a new language for talking about what sort of cooperation is needed. There is a literature out there on ID/TD, and Murray failed to engage it. To point out that failure is not to make a disciplinary criticism of Murray (as if there might be a discipline of ID/TD, a topic I discuss here). It is to suggest, however, that inventing new terms on one’s own is not conducive to the sort of communication necessary to tackle the ‘big’ questions.

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