Christian Pohl is committed to transdisciplinary research and jury member of the new FWF programme #ConnectingMinds. "We are now living at a time when such collaborations are needed", he says. © ETH Zürich

#ConnectingMinds is the first funding programme initiated by the FWF to bring together teams from research and practice that address socially relevant topics. What are the issues addressed by the groups that have submitted proposals? 

Christian Pohl: Out of more than 50 submissions, 11 projects qualified for the first phase of the application process. They addressed quite a variety of topics, ranging from gender issues to ecological topics or health-related issues. Ultimately we invited five teams for a hearing. Their project proposals have a clear health focus involving, for example, issues in care, Parkinson's disease and mental health around birth. One sustainability project intends to address the value-creation chain in cattle breeding.

Is any topic suitable for transdisciplinary research?

Pohl: In principle the answer is yes, but certain framework conditions are important, such as an appropriate project duration, financial resources and realistic objectives. Transdisciplinary research is the right path wherever we don't yet know exactly what the actual problem is in detail, where there are different ways of tackling it and where those involved also accord different weight to potential solutions. In English they are called “wicked problems”, the solution of which not only requires expertise from different disciplines but also partners from the world of practice, who ideally have different opinions in order to be able to address existing conflicts.

Who defines problems and how does one become aware of them?

“Transdisciplinary research is the right path wherever we don't yet know exactly what the problem is in detail.” Christian Pohl

Pohl: That is an important question. The FWF and the jury members of #ConnectingMinds felt that it was important to have two phases in the application process, starting with workshops where the problem is defined on the basis of an idea. This conceptual process is central because it is important to define which disciplines are actually needed. If it should turn out, contrary to plans, that a problem also involves economic aspects, it needs input from economics and so on. Furthermore, they need the right non-academic partners with practical know-how. It would therefore be ideal to extend this “problem-framing phase” to up to one year and to leave it as open as possible. Under these circumstances one might well see changes being made to the original project team.

What makes the most outstanding projects stand out from the rest?

Pohl: The finalists did a great job in meeting the mix of transdisciplinary requirements in combination with the FWF's criteria for excellent scientific research. Since we are dealing with societal challenges, we, as a team of transdisciplinary reviewers, paid particular attention to whether the projects are close enough to practice to have an impact outside of academia. This can be tested well on a smaller scale in so-called “living labs” or real-world laboratories in the project to check whether ideas for solutions work. It is also important to plan the joint production of knowledge, i.e. to define who is needed at what point in the course of the collaboration, because transdisciplinary processes are complex and multi-layered. Another criterion is the question of what methods can be used to ensure a good combination of diverse interests and disciplines.

How does the involvement of non-academic actors affect researchers and vice versa?

Pohl: The balance between science and practice is important. Ideally, there is a mutual effect between aspects that lead back to practice and new scientific outcomes. Delving deep into the practical side can be extremely interesting, especially for those engaged in basic research. It gives them the opportunity to take away ideas about aspects of their research topic and questions they never considered before.

What role do accompanying measures – such as those envisaged by the #ConnectingMinds funding programme – play in supporting the career development of scientists in transdisciplinary projects? 

“Delving deep into the practical side can be extremely interesting, especially for those engaged in basic research.” Christian Pohl

Pohl: These measures are an essential part of such a funding track. Publishing is important, for instance. Another aspect is the weight that will be accorded in the future to having been involved in transdisciplinary research. Incidentally, there are studies from American public health research that show that transdisciplinary projects take longer to publish but end up with more publications because they can contribute to new knowledge in different fields. For young researchers in particular, it can be advantageous to work in such projects at this point in time. The selection process for #ConnectingMinds shows that excellence and practical relevance do not have to be mutually exclusive. We have supported those who are excellent in both disciplinary and transdisciplinary terms.

What future potential does this type of collaborative research have?

Pohl: Transdisciplinary research is venturing out of the ivory tower and getting directly involved in the process of solving social problems. The European Union has also understood that it is becoming increasingly important and supports it within the framework of Horizon Europe. Even if it will not solve everything, I would say: let's back this horse for a few decades, it is very promising. Unsurprisingly, there are initiatives in this context in various countries, including Ireland, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, to create or further develop a good basis. Globally speaking, an alliance has just been established to strengthen joint research into major social challenges. This goes to show that collaborative projects involving researchers and non-academics are growing in Europe and also in America, especially in contexts where there is increasing pressure to justify research and respond to the question of “what are you doing for us?“.

Participation is based on democratic principles, but it can promote inequality, for instance if disadvantaged groups are not involved. How do projects have to be set up in order to prevent this?

Pohl: That's a difficult question, and of course there are deficits everywhere, since you can never include everyone. Asking “who is missing?” is therefore a typical methodological step in transdisciplinary projects. Such projects have the advantage, however, that the various actors usually work locally on specific problems. Admittedly, this gives rise to situation-specific or limited truths. But we must always ask which of these locally specific results can be transferred to a higher level. Seen from this angle, transdisciplinarity takes place in a bubble, but it is not necessarily elitist, it is local.

A piece of integrative research practice can promote new knowledge and stimulate social innovations. Does that include any knowledge transfer to the political sphere?

“A special characteristic is that the relationships with the groups involved are cultivated over a longer period of time, and this builds trust.” Christian Pohl

Pohl: Compared to classical research, transdisciplinary projects have the special characteristic that the relationships with the respective groups involved – be they interest groups, stakeholders or public office holders – are cultivated over a longer period of time, and this builds trust. In the corona pandemic, where everyone had to react quickly, that was not possible. Now we are considering setting up permanent bodies where regular exchanges can take place. That can certainly make the interfaces more permeable.

We also know from feedback from transdisciplinary projects in which the public administration was involved that the mode of this joint knowledge production is an important finding that participants transfer into practice. In other words, it is not just about the results, but also about the methods. Therein lies potential to create new and stronger relationships between science, politics and society. A funding institution like the FWF can support this and secure a position for itself. I think we are living at a time when such projects are needed, just as much as unadulterated basic research.

Christian Erik Pohl is an environmental scientist and science researcher at ETH Zurich. Since the late 1990s he has been dedicated to the development and evaluation of theories, methods and tools in inter- and transdisciplinary research. He is co-author of the “Handbook for Transdisciplinary Research” (2008), a member of the transdisciplinary network “td-net” of the Swiss Academy of Sciences, and co-director of the Transdisciplinarity Laboratory TdLab at ETH Zurich to name but a few achievements. Pohl has most recently contributed his expertise as a jury member in the Austrian Science Fund's new #ConnectingMinds funding track.

First transdisciplinary projects ready for launch

No matter what the topic – digitalisation, care, climate protection or democracy – the Austrian Science Fund's new #ConnectingMinds funding programme is open to them all. The first five transdisciplinary projects have been launched in October 2021. They unite researchers and non-academic practitioners. In this way, the FWF supports teams that combine scientific findings and practical knowledge in order to develop jointly solutions for current social issues and to promote collective learning. #ConnectingMinds foresees a project duration of up to five years with a maximum funding amount of one million euros.

More information

#ConnectingMinds funding programme


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