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Cambridge Global Food Security

A Strategic Research Initiative of the University of Cambridge

Studying at Cambridge

Transdisciplinarity is possible, but takes a lot of effort.

In this commentary Ksenia Gerasimova reflects upon the issue of transdisciplinarity and building bridges between natural and social sciences. She refers to her experience of organising the Food Security Conference in Cambridge in June 2016.


The modern generation of scientists, both social and natural, understand that the current subjects of research are complex and often require a mix of different methods (inter-disciplinarity) and involvement of more than one discipline (multi-disciplinarity)[1]. Collaborations are generally considered good and combinations of different disciplines are in most cases a prerequisite to secure research funding. My question is about how to implement transdisciplinarity between natural and social sciences. We all aim for trans-disciplinarity, which, according to Nowotny[2], is about ‘transgressing boundaries’ when different actors and their perspectives are involved. But is the modern transdisciplinarity real? And is it a question of compatibility of sciences to work together, common research agendas, willingness or available funding?

The idea of mixing different sciences, such as the natural and social sciences, is not new. One outcome of such a mix is sociobiology which studies biological determinants of social behavior. But can there be other ways of combining two sciences without conforming social and cultural categories to the standards of natural sciences? Triggs argues that the alternative seems to be ‘the total independence of the two types of science’[3]. Would it mean that bridging without reductionism is not possible?

I hope it is possible. It might need more effort and patient communication. To give an example, the University of Cambridge has a strategic research initiative called “Cambridge Global Food Security” which brings together social and natural scientists who work on different aspects of food security and provides administrative and financial support for joint research initiatives. In 2016 we organised a conference[4]. I am grateful that scientists from the Department of Plant Sciences invited me, a social scientist, to co-design the programme. We ended up having two streams: one was based on nature conservation issues and the second one on economic, social and cultural aspects of food. Conference attendants were allowed to move between streams at any time they wanted. However, those with a plant science background tended to stay in the first stream and social scientists attended mostly the second stream. I appreciated those who tried to challenge the comfort zone of their research and attended panels with subjects they were not familiar. They did complain, though, that it was difficult to comprehend. This makes me wonder how we can still achieve transdisciplinarity? Do we use another language that explains problems which are tackled in easier terms? But there is a basic set of concepts and terminologies in each discipline. Do we divide labour accordingly so that each discipline makes its contributions to a final assemblage? But again, this means no real cross-overs, in a natural scientific term allegory, there is no solution or suspension. Does that mean that we have to breed a new generation of scientists, super-scientists who understand basics of both sciences, but what do we do in the meantime?

Certain questions, such as transgenic agriculture for example, require both understanding of biological processes and how society would accept or reject these new crops. It is equally counterproductive for both – for biologists working on new GM traits without understanding how society will react to introduction of these new plants in the market and for social scientists researching on GM crops without understanding the basics of genetic engineering. The same questions applies to sustainability science which is ‘integrated, place-based science’ that require new research strategies and institutional innovations across disciplines[5]. Social science needs natural science and vice versa to answer complex questions.

I think all these questions definitely mean that we should carry on trying to reach out to each other. It is still possible to bring together categories from different sciences together without reducing them or bringing to one denominator. For example, at the conference, biologists who attended the session on food and culture and learnt about a new concept of culinary capital, said at the end of the conference that it was an insight to understand that culture does matter in food policy and might even have implications for their own research on plants. Thus, I believe, we need to continue building bridges across disciplines and create more insights for each other.





[1]J. Moran Interdisciplinary. (Routledge: L., 2010)

[2] H. Nowotny The Potential of Transdisciplinarity. (2006) Available at 

[3] R. Trigg R. Understanding social science: a philosophical introduction to the social sciences. (Blackwell: Oxford, 2001).


[5] R.W.Kates, W.C. Clark*, R. Corell, J. M. Hall, C. C. Jaeger, I. Lowe, J. J.McCarthy, H. J. Schellnhuber, B. Bolin, N. M. Dickson, S. Faucheux, G. C. Gallopin, A. Grübler, B. Huntley, J. Jäger, N. S. Jodha, R. E. Kasperson, A. Mabogunje, P. Matson, H. Mooney, B. Moore III, T. O'Riordan, U. Svedin (2001) Science  27 Apr 2001:Vol. 292, Issue 5517, pp. 641-642