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Characteristics, emerging needs, and challenges of transdisciplinary sustainability science: experiences from the German Social-Ecological Research Program

Chantal Ruppert-Winkel, University of Freiburg
Robert Arlinghaus, Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries; Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Sonja Deppisch, HafenCity University Hamburg
Klaus Eisenack, Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg
Daniela Gottschlich, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Bernd Hirschl, Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IÖW) Berlin; Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg
Bettina Matzdorf, Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF)
Tanja Mölders, Leibniz University of Hannover
Martina Padmanabhan, University of Passau
Kirsten Selbmann, Bochum University of Applied Science; Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
Rafael Ziegler, University of Greifswald
Tobias Plieninger, University of Copenhagen


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Transdisciplinary sustainability science (TSS) is a prominent way of scientifically contributing to the solution of sustainability problems. Little is known, however, about the practice of scientists in TSS, especially those early in their career. Our objectives were to identify these practices and to outline the needs and challenges for early career scientists in TSS. To that end, we compiled 10 key characteristics of TSS based on a literature survey. We then analyzed research groups with 81 early career scientists against these characteristics. All of these research groups are funded by an ongoing federally funded German program for social-ecological research whose main feature is to promote sustainability-oriented inter- and transdisciplinary research. We found that the practices of the 12 groups generally correspond with the characteristics for TSS, although there is ample variation in how they were addressed. Three major challenges were identified: (1) TSS demands openness to a plurality of research designs, theories, and methods, while also requiring shared, explicit, and recursive use of TSS characteristics; (2) researchers in TSS teams must make decisions about trade-offs between achievements of societal and scientific impact, acknowledging that focusing on the time-consuming former aspect is difficult to integrate into a scientific career path; and (3) although generalist researchers are increasingly becoming involved in such TSS research projects, supporting the integration of social, natural, and engineering sciences, specialized knowledge is also required.

Key words

early career scientists; interdisciplinarity; research practice; self-evaluation; social-ecological research; sustainability science; trandisciplinarity

Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087