Land-use practices and spatial development cover a wide range of sustainability problems. Increasing change in land use often causes environmental damages that reach far beyond the local scope [1
]. Different interests and demands as well as values and norms compete for limited land resources and the related ecosystem’s services and functions (e.g., Müller et al. [2
], Zscheischler et al. [3
]). Spatial development faces high degrees of complexity and uncertainty as it “operates in a world of becoming” under ever-changing societal, economic and biogeophysical conditions [4
These challenges have been amplified by global changes that include land-related issues such as climate change, urbanisation, and decreasing biodiversity [5
]. Thus, the demand for societal transformation towards sustainability has been increasingly discussed over the last two decades and has evolved into a major issue in politics, science and planning. Transformation is considered to involve comprehensive changes in behaviour and practices by a multitude of actors and institutions [6
], which requires knowledge to not only understand the interplay of current drivers and inhibitors of global change but also to develop strategies and solutions that lead to desired future development [7
In this regard, collaborative research approaches such as inter- and transdisciplinarity are considered promising means of initiating change in the current course of action. Numerous authors have defined transdisciplinary research (TDR) as a collaborative process of knowledge production that involves scientists from different disciplines and societal actors and is aimed at addressing highly complex, real-world problems (e.g., Pohl [9
], Wickson et al. [10
], Wiek [11
], Roux et al. [12
], Toetzer et al. [13
]). TDR can be understood as a research-guiding principle and a form of organisation [14
] that integrates different knowledge types and incorporates processes of co-design and co-production [15
]. As described here, TDR shows many commonalities with action-research approaches, such as community-based action research (CBPAR) (e.g., Horowitz et al. [16
], Minkler [17
]) and transdisciplinary action research (TDAR) (Stokols [18
], Thering and Chanse [19
]), which are preferred in the American context.
Many scholars have emphasised the potential contributions of TDR, such as its ability to increase stakeholder decision-making capacity by providing “socially robust” and implementable knowledge [20
] and rationalising conflicts [22
], to accommodate complexity [9
] and to integrate various perspectives and sources of knowledge [10
]. Presently, TDR has become increasingly widespread [26
], promoted and institutionalised (e.g., Future Earth, Horizon 2020). It has progressively become mandatory for funding, requiring a change of research practice.
Against this backdrop, we consider TDR a social innovation in the academic system (see also Blättel-Mink and Kastenholz [29
], Novy et al. [30
]). There are numerous interpretative patterns of the term “social innovation” and corresponding heterogeneous theoretical approaches. In accordance with others (e.g., Taylor [31
], Brooks [32
], Schubert [33
]), we conceive of social innovation as an extension of the notion of technological innovation. Thus, we do not consider social innovations as distinctive or opposite to techno-economic innovations but as a broader interpretation. We define “social innovation” as “new” practices that provide alternative solutions to persisting problems [34
] driven by specific actors in specific operating contexts [35
]. We argue that, currently, TDR is in the midst of an up-scaling diffusion process from a rather small TDR-advocating expert community to a broader science-practice community or from a systems theory perspective in a phase of restabilisation (cf. Besio and Schmidt [37
]). In this stage, it is determined whether an innovation will result in structural changes, remain in the phase of variation, or whether the innovation process will be terminated (see also Luhmann [38
Hence, this stage places TDR in a “critical state”. Pohl [39
] found that, to many researchers, TDR is just another demand among others in research programmes. Consequently, researchers might be tempted to comply in name (“rhetorical mainstreaming”; Jahn and Keil [40
]) but not in fact to secure their share of available funds [41
]. In science, this form of “window dressing” often plays an important role in securing funding [42
Previous empirical studies have addressed the challenges, obstacles, and facilitators in implementing TDR (e.g., Blättel-Mink and Kastenholz [29
], Tress et al. [43
], Jakobsen et al. [44
], White et al. [45
]). However, information on the quality of transdisciplinary processes remains scarce [46
]. To date, the framing of TDR as a form of (social) innovation in a diffusion process has been uncommon; however, framing TDR in this way might provide knowledge on influential factors for the adoption and implementation of the TDR approach. In addition, individual case studies are the most common contributions to TDR and almost exclusively reflect the scientific perspective on a collaborative process (Zscheischler and Rogga [47
]). In contrast, few comparative studies have been conducted (e.g., Zierhofer and Burger [48
], Enengel et al. [49
], Campbell et al. [7
The aim of this paper is to examine how the challenging approach of TDR is adopted and implemented in the field of land-use research performed under similar conditions (same funding programme). The comparative analysis is aimed at identifying potential explanatory factors and assessing their relevance for the adoption of the TDR approach to discuss implications and conclusions for better disseminating this approach.
In this comparative study, one objective was to analyse how TDR is currently adopted in the field of land-use research. In addition, we aimed to identify potential influencing factors, assess their relevance for adopting the TDR approach, and consider the implications. We began with the assumption that TDR can be considered as a social innovation.
Our results show that the adoption of the TDR concept varied widely among the studied projects, as did the adoption of the TD indicators used in our analysis. On the one hand, this indicates that in research practice there are different qualities and degrees of TDR. Such a differentiation has scarcely been noted in the theoretical discourse thus far.
On the other hand, we argue that these findings also reveal a constrained adoption and implementation of TDR, which can be traced back to factors frequently discussed in the innovation literature.
5.1. There Is a Lack of Sufficient Knowledge of the TDR Concept
“Knowledge of the TDR concept” and “Previous TD experience” appeared to be the factors that most strongly influenced the quality of the transdisciplinary process. We concluded that the more extensive the background knowledge of TD (especially among the coordinating staff), the better the observed performance. This finding underlines the importance of sufficient “principle knowledge” for the innovation process [73
]. However, this interpretation stands in contrast to the survey results of Tress et al. [43
], who found no correlation between professional experience and the difficulties researchers face in TDR projects. However, whereas Tress et al. [43
] focussed on general difficulties perceived by a broad range of researchers, the present study focused on the quality of the TDR process.
Although the coordinators generally showed a “positive general attitude” towards TDR, after 3–5 years of project experience, many coordinators possessed only a vague understanding of the TDR concept. This is remarkable, especially considering that TDR was frequently mentioned as a central feature of the projects. We speculate that this vague understanding might be due a general lack of interest in learning about TDR or a general underestimation of the complexity and corresponding requirements for the coordination of TDR projects [81
Other scholars (e.g., Brandt et al. [82
], Jahn et al. [46
], Carew and Wickson [83
]) noted that a lack of conceptual clarity regarding the TDR approach persists, which hampers its diffusion to other target groups. Thus, the “TD community” developed its own defined terminology, which is helpful for theoretical discussions but limits its communication to scientists in other fields [82
]. Tress et al. [58
] found that a lack of common understanding of TD was one major obstacle to integration. They emphasise the importance of conceptual clarity to “compare and evaluate the outcomes of different research approaches” (ibid.). Therefore, the current process of “rhetorical mainstreaming” of TDR is misguided and could marginalise researchers who seriously seek to apply TDR [40
]. Thus, the integrity of TDR might be negatively affected by both a continuous degradation of the standards of TDR in practice and the increasing detachment of expert discourse from the rest of academia.
We argue that a missing common and clear definition of TDR clearly constraints its diffusion. This argument is supported by the observation that interviewees did not recognise TDR as something “new” but equated it with “applied research”. Thus, it is not unexpected that these coordinators did not see any need for a change of practice.
5.2. Funding Conditions and Review Processes Require Adjustment
The vague understanding of TD was apparent as early as the research proposal stage. Many proposals showed clear weaknesses in the conceptual understanding of TDR. This finding raises questions with regard to the scientists involved in the peer-review process and their TDR expertise. Although evaluations of funding conditions often address limited time and financial resources (e.g., Maasen and Lieven [84
], Tress et al. [43
], Horowitz et al. [16
]), the role of peer reviewers remains widely unconsidered. In accordance with Lange and Fuest [81
], we assume that the proposal reviewers were selected based on their expertise in land-use science and encountered the same difficulties in appraising the transdisciplinary concepts as did their applicant peers. As we had no access to data on the peer-review process, we cannot assess the extent to which TDR experts were included in the peer-review panel. Regardless, we argue that the involvement of TDR experts in the development of calls and the peer-review process is important for securing quality TDR. Our analysis of the programme call showed that an elaborated concept for the design and management of the transdisciplinary process was not demanded. In addition, the funding conditions limited the opportunities for collaborative framing of the research problem and for developing a common objective. The application phase was not funded, and the application time span of 4 months was very short. A lack of practice-partner involvement arising from short application phases has been documented in other studies and appears to be crucial for the collaborative process (see also Viswanathan et al. [85
], Horowitz et al. [16
]). More recent TDR funding programmes from the same donor have recognised this shortcoming, and a longer “framing phase” has been implemented. Further investigations are needed to determine the effects of an extended and financed preliminary phase.
However, demanding TDR as a general requirement for funding seems questionable. Such a requirement forces scientists to think in instruments, but TDR is not an end in itself. Implementing TDR should rather depend on the research question that has been posed. Hence, many of the studied projects did not meet several TDR criteria but can be regarded as valuable projects in which the research problem and objectives do not require a “full” TDR approach.
5.3. Academic Structures and Cultures Do Not Integrate Well with TDR
In general, our results showed that TDR does not easily “fit” into the established competitive academic system with its discipline-based organisational structures and reputational system (e.g., Russell et al. [86
]; see also Rip and van der Meulen [87
], Leydesdorff and Gauthier [88
Many scientists were under “high pressure for third-party funding”. This pressure is prevalent within the whole scientific system and forces researchers into a continual process of proposal writing under an increasing scarcity of research funding [89
]. However, the extent to which researchers can adapt to call requirements and adjust their research direction is limited as the evaluation of proposals strongly depends on prior expertise and research content. Thus, current funding mechanisms limit transitions towards new research topics and encourages researchers to engage in scientific “window dressing” [90
]. Gläser and Laudel [42
] regards “window dressing” as a way to “bootleg money for the start of new research under the cover of existing grants” (p. 125). Our results showed that this practice occurred in the studied projects as some coordinators reported on the “hidden research agendas” of researchers who followed their individual research interests and contributed little to the joint projects. Although our sample size was small, the large-sized projects (in terms of the number of involved project partners) appeared to be prone to this form of pretence.
Hessels et al. [89
] explain the tensions that evolve for scientists when they involve stakeholders in the “credibility cycle”. In addition to the pursuit of funding, the pressure to publish also increasingly rose [91
], preventing scientists from reconciling the scientific demands of research with the promise of societal relevance and the involvement of stakeholders at the same time. This situation appears to be true for research fields “with less generous and powerful stakeholders” [89
], as is the case in the field of land-use science. Our results showed that researchers struggled to achieve “balanced benefits” regarding practical relevance and scientific quality and productivity. Most projects were characterised by either a “primacy of practice” or a “primacy of science” [11
]. In general, the scientific character and consequently the epistemic function of TDR were questioned [48
In addition, we assume that the costs and benefits in TDR projects are not allocated in a just manner. Our investigation showed that coordinating positions are neither adequate nor recommendable for junior scientists in their post-doc phase. Post-doc coordinators carry a high load of administrative and representative duties and risk further career opportunities, likely due to a decrease in publication output [92
]. The potential loss of experienced TDR researchers for the academic system is accompanied by an erosion of knowledge and skills and hinders the development of professionalised experts who can build their careers by performing TDR. Thus, it is questionable whether a project-oriented organisation is suitable and sufficient to establish an open network structure and field practice for the development of adaptive “learning cycles” [93
]. To perpetuate knowledge and many other aims, sole financing through third-party funds and the associated staff turnover should be reconsidered. Hence, the introduction of new and innovative funding instruments that support enduring structures appears necessary [7
Another structural shortcoming appears to be the antagonism of “competition” and “cooperation”. TDR as well as other collaborative research approaches such as CBPAR require inclusive and cooperative practice, whereas traditional science is a “competitive field that is exclusive” [16
]. However, we found no empirical evidence for the influence of competition on the adoption of TDR in the studied projects. Rather, our results showed a disciplinary divide between social and nature-technological scientists. In several projects, social scientists had “a service role” [94
] and were outnumbered. Their scientific relevance was also questioned, and some coordinators admitted to having “social scientists involved to get funding”. Ledford [95
] stated that social scientists are often involved in collaborative research teams to “tick a box” for societal impact but “without true commitment”. Vadrot et al. [96
] argued that the general underrepresentation of social scientists in science platforms dedicated to global challenges, such as IPBES (The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), “mirrors institutional and knowledge barriers between research disciplines”. In contrast, Van Langenhove [97
] emphasised the importance of social scientists for addressing global challenges and recognised “reluctance” on the part of social scientists to do so.
The aim of this comparative study was to analyse how the challenging approach of TDR is adopted in 13 TDR projects over a period of five years. The projects covered the field of land-use research performed under similar conditions (same funding programme). In addition, we aimed to identify potential influencing factors to assess their relevance for adopting the TDR approach and to consider implications. Results are based on the analysis of interviews with coordinating researchers, project proposals, reports, web pages, protocols and field notes during meetings. We began with the assumption that TDR can be considered a social innovation in academia that is currently in the critical stage of up-scaling from a small TDR-advocating expert community to a broader science-practice community.
Our results show that the adoption of the TDR concept varied widely among the studied projects, as did the adoption level of the TDR indicators used in our analysis:
Only few projects strived to achieve a process of collaboratively framing the research problem and defining the objectives involving actors from practice at the initial project phase.
Interdisciplinary collaboration exhibited a prevailing additive character. The integration of conceptual frameworks and theory from different disciplines was frequently not strategically planned or managed.
The dominance of natural scientific-technological disciplines was apparent in many cases. In many of the studied projects, social scientists were not only outnumbered but also regarded as a “service discipline”.
In a minority of projects, science-practice collaboration had a central role and was designed as a process with equal footing. In many projects, information transfer and consultation events outweighed more integrative approaches.
On the one hand, this indicates that in research practice there are different qualities and degrees of TDR, which has scarcely been noted in the theoretical discourse thus far. In addition, there are no minimal standards yet to distinguish between a TDR project and a non-TDR project.
On the other hand, we argue that these findings also reveal a constrained adoption and implementation of TDR, which can be traced back, among others, to:
a lack of knowledge among a broader community of scientists who apply TDR;
dysfunctional funding conditions; and
contradicting academic structures and cultures.
Even if our results only present a medium sample of projects from the specific field of land-use science and acknowledging that empirical studies from other research fields are needed to prove our findings, we conclude that the idea of TDR is based on expert-driven discussion and concept development, which have not yet been diffused and adopted by a broader community.
Thus, the findings imply that in addition to further communication and educational efforts, novel funding instruments that support sustained structures are needed to promote TDR. These structural changes appear especially important as current adoption practice bears the risk of improper characterisation, implementation, or evaluation of the TDR approach. As a result, a persistent underperformance of TDR may cause its discontinuance and hinder its establishment as a well accepted research approach in academia.