Commentary Clarifies The Different Ways Of Working Together With
Report From An SER
Special report by
Robert A Hiatt
colleagues, Qing Li, Noel Weiss and Muin Khoury
and I put on a symposium on the last morning of the recent 50th
Anniversary SER Meeting just completed in Seattle entitled “The
Central Role of Epidemiology in Transdisciplinary and Translational
Team Science”. It was surprisingly well attended for being at the end
of a long program and discussion was lively.
The editor of The Epidemiology Monitor thought that
readers might be interested in hearing about the topic of
Transdisciplinary Science and that it would be instructive to make
some comparisons to the points made by George Kaplan in his
interview in the May issue about his popular new book ““Growing
Inequality—Bridging Complex Systems, Population Health, and Health
Disparities” which he co-edited with Ana Diez-Roux, Carl
Simon, and Sandro Galea.
There are in fact some interesting similarities and differences.
Transdisciplinary science, for those who are not familiar with it, is
an approach to complex research topics that brings together scientists
from multiple, and frequently diverse, disciplines to address common
problem, using a common framework of possible causation. The
participants in this approach are encouraged to hold their own
knowledge lightly, listen to the the perspectives of others and seek,
through open and trusting interactions, ways to come up with new
knowledge, hypotheses and ideas that they may not have considered
working alone or in their own disciplinary field.
was described by Patricia Rosenfield in the mid 1990’s as
distinguished from multidisciplinary science where scientists from
multiple disciplines attacked a common problem, but stuck to their own
skills and knowledge base and from interdisciplinary science where
there was more interaction between team members, but still the
contributions were coming primarily from their own disciplinary
perspectives. Transdisciplinary science looks for a blending of ideas,
novel approaches and unexpected new knowledge.
Transdisciplnary science has itself been a topic of study for some
decades and the reader is referred to the work of Dan Stokols
and Kara Hall who have both written extensively on the topic
from their positions in the School of Social Ecology at University of
California Irvine and the Nation Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer
Control and Population Sciences, respectively. The NCI has supported
a number of large transdisciplinary initiatives starting in the early
2000’s on topics such as tobacco control, cancer communication, cancer
population health and health disparities, energy balance and breast
cancer and the environment. The approach invariably draws on the need
for team science and the literature frequently uses team science and
transdisciplinary science interchangeably.
Further, as we tried to
emphasize in our symposium these approaches are oriented to
applications in the service of translational science beyond “the
bedside”, a point that Muin Khoury has written about extensively. I
like to make the distinction between these processes for
epidemiologists by saying that translational science is often best
achieved by teams using a transdisciplinary approach. I also think
that epidemiologists are highly suited to being key participants if
not leaders in transdisciplinary science.
similarities to the points that George Kaplan made in his interview
last month include the interaction of scientists from multiple
disciplines and the challenge of getting them to work together.
Patience, time and the right settings are needed to get scientists to
trust and understand each other’s language and ways of thinking.
Sometimes the same word (e.g., race) can mean different things to
different disciplines; sometimes the same concept has different words
to express it. Having worked with George on a complex systems project,
I know what he means when he says that the process of tackling the
complexity of disease causation in an interdisciplinary group is
“iterative” and “time consuming” but essential.
difference between complex systems thinking and transdisciplinary
science is, I believe, in that the first seeks primarily to understand
complex systems of causation as they occur in the real world…not by
exploring a “series of independent causes”.
Transdisicplinary science is more of an approach to solving problems,
which may or may not be complex. This approach may be in the service
of understanding causal relationships or it may be to develop a policy
solution facing population health where the causal relationships have
not yet been worked out. One doesn’t need to invoke the descriptor
“transdisciplinary” to do what George and his colleagues have done in
the Network on Inequality, Complexity and Health. However, I believe
it is a useful concept for epidemiologists to consider as they seek
new knowledge for the benefit of population health.