Exploring the promises of transdisciplinary research: a quantitative study of two climate research programmes

S. de Jong, T. Wardenaar, Edwin Horlings

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

55 Citations (Scopus)


Scientists have long since become accustomed to explaining the future value of their work. Nowadays token statements are no longer sufficient. Societal impact must be embedded in the organisation of research. The call for societal impact is most explicitly expressed in and actively shaped by strategic research programmes that involve societal actors. We have examined two questions related to compliance in the principal-agent relation between a programme and its projects. The first question concerns the risk of moral hazard: is societal actor involvement a token activity or a substantial component of the research process? The second question relates to possible adverse selection: does societal actor involvement produce the expected benefits and, if so, under which conditions? We surveyed members and project leaders of 178 projects in two strategic research programmes in the Netherlands. There is no reason to suspect large-scale moral hazard. Projects formally labelled as transdisciplinary have characteristics typically associated with transdisciplinarity but academic projects share those characteristics. Neither is there reason to suspect adverse selection. The archetypical properties of transdisciplinary research are associated with the expected societal benefits. An important finding is that there are different types of benefit, each of which requires its own approach. Societal benefit is associated mainly with the characteristics of consulting transdisciplinarity rather than participatory transdisciplinarity. Benefit is achieved through informal involvement and a diversity of outputs, and much less by giving societal actors a prominent role or influence in the research process. Based on our conclusions we recommend customizing the design of research programmes and projects towards the needs of the specific societal benefits they aim to generate and reconsidering the emphasis on formal involvement of societal actors in funding procedures.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1397
Number of pages1409
JournalResearch Policy
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - May 2016


  • societal impact
  • transdisciplinary research
  • societal actor involvement
  • principal-agent theory
  • knowledge transfer
  • climate


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