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Panel on New Directions in Social Demography, Social Epidemiology, and the Sociology of Aging; Committee on Population; Division on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; National Research Council; Waite LJ, Plewes TJ, editors. New Directions in the Sociology of Aging. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2013 Dec 26.

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New Directions in the Sociology of Aging.

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4Roadblocks and Bridges to Transdisciplinary Research

Team science is growing. As recently as 15 or even 10 years ago, most research was accomplished by solo investigators working in single disciplines. Disciplines are still important. The provide linkages to well-developed theoretical frameworks, an accumulation of scientific evidence and impart an important shared perspective. In the past decade, multidisciplinary research teams have become much more prominent and are having a much greater impact in the production of knowledge (see Wuchty, Jones, and Uzzi, 2007). As the issues that scientists and scholars investigate in their study of aging increase in complexity, the need for research teams—and the institutional infrastructure to support those teams—also increases.

Just as team science is growing, so is the science of team science as evidenced in a supplement to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (Syme, 2008) with appreciation of the synergies and challenges that such work entails. Rosenfield's (1992) formulation, as mentioned in Chapter 1, has become predominant since first proposed. Rosenfield (1992) characterizes transdisciplinarity as involving researchers from different disciplines constructing an overarching model that includes but transcends their individual disciplines. In Rosenfield's typology, transdisciplinarity supersedes multidisciplinarity, in which researchers from separate disciplines work on the same problem independently with the intention of later combining their findings. Transdiciplinarity is also a step further than interdisciplinarity, in which scholars from different disciplines contribute their distinct perspectives to shared work on a common problem. Transdisciplinary research thus requires, as Duncan (2012, p. 7) observes from his own experience in the field of child development, a “true integration of disciplines at the level of concepts, assumptions, theories, methods, and interpretation.”

Of course, the analytical distinctions are never quite so tidy during the actual research. Adler and Stewart (2010, p. 253), reflecting on their experiences as director and administrator, respectively, of the MacArthur Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health, remark that “the boundaries between these categories are blurry, particularly between interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity. While each type of category shift indicates progress toward greater integration, it's not always clear when a category shift has occurred.”

Transdisciplinarity is both a process and a challenge. It demands the transformation of individual researchers into an effective team with a shared vision. This type of work is not for all researchers. As Adler and Stewart (2010, p. 254) note, “Traditional approaches to science reward individual effort. As a result, relatively few people have experience working in a highly collaborative manner, and some are not particularly interested in doing so.” The meetings of their research network, for example, included many guests who “did brilliant research and enriched our understanding of the problem but did not engage in the process of merging their thinking with that of others”—and thus were not invited to join the network.

Transdisciplinary research is also not appropriate to all questions. Progress in any field requires what Duncan (2012, p. 6) refers to as both the “deepening and broadening” of the field's conceptual and empirical perspective. But for fundamental and complex social issues such as aging, broad transdisciplinary work has become imperative. The collaborative and synergistic aging research being done by scholars from many disciplines and often from multiple institutions (such as the work being done at the University of Chicago and at Harvard University, discussed below as examples of bridges to transdisciplinary research) is yielding new conceptual models, methodologies, evidence bases, and insights. For such fields as social genomics or cognitive neuroscience, which are of increasing importance to the study of aging, integrative multilevel transdisciplinary work is the only way to make progress. Research that transcends disciplines is imperative and merits support.


The need for transdisciplinary research in aging is increasingly recognized and is growing, yet many roadblocks encumber progress. Existing institutional infrastructure favors research that is deep rather than broad; as Duncan (2012, p. 13) observes, “there is little to worry about depth—the gravitational forces within our traditional social and behavioral disciplines and proposal review panels are robust and likely to stay that way.” By contrast, support for transdisciplinary research faces many constraints and obstacles. These include institutional and administrative rigidities, established specializations among journals and professional societies, funder preferences and policies, and the incentives and constraints embedded in academic and research career tracks.

Institutional and Administrative Constraints

The organization of universities, other research institutions, and federal agencies can have significant implications for the kind of aging research that is conducted. Many constraints to transdisciplinary research result from institutional arrangements, left over from an earlier era, set in place to strengthen individual disciplines and the work done in them. Universities have long been organized into disciplinary departments, and administrative support systems have grown around this structure. Other roadblocks to transdisciplinary research, such as institutional review boards (IRBs), are more recent. These institutional and administrative arrangements were not initiated obstruct transdisciplinary research, but this has become an unintended consequence.

“In most universities,” Adler and Stewart (2010, p. 254) observe, “power and resources flow through departments which are organized by discipline.” That captures the problem succinctly. Work that exists between, across, and among many departments and institutions may well fall outside the flow of attention, power, and resources. Transdisciplinary projects must negotiate leadership, direction, and management, including what particular department or division will bear the costs, not only the cost of investments in specialized research tools but also the indirect and overhead costs of managing complex and extensive projects. Large, complex projects with federal or foundation funding present challenges to grants management, need for research resources and administrative support, and cost sharing. Assigning and carrying costs for transdisciplinary work constitute a substantial hurdle in institutions designed to channel internal resources through disciplinary departments.

Administrative capacity is another constraint. University research offices rarely have the experience or skills to manage the budgets, staffing, and timelines involved in the complex multidivision or multi-institution projects that often define aging research. Research offices may be organized more toward competing with other universities to obtain grants, rather than collaborating with them to build multi-institution projects. They may be ready to address compliance and regulatory issues, but less capable of facilitating work among scholars attempting to cross not only disciplinary divides, but also the mundane chasms of different time zones, laboratory protocols, or conference styles.

The requirement that all research involving human subjects be assessed by an IRB can inhibit transdisciplinary research as researchers from different divisions or schools in the same university or at different research organizations must seek approval from a number of IRBs. A lack of transdisciplinary perspective among the members of these boards can impede careful oversight, as review groups narrow themselves to standard disciplinary concerns and questions. For example, review boards in medical schools often give great attention to assessing the risks of procedures to patients, which is not relevant either for survey research or observational studies.

Disciplinary Boundaries of Professional Journals and Societies

Other aspects of institutional infrastructure can also impede transdisciplinary research in aging. Where, for example, can the results be published? Editors and reviewers of high-prestige disciplinary journals can be difficult gatekeepers, resistant to publishing transdisciplinary work. They may lack the breadth of expertise to assess the research, or they may appreciate its value yet still consider it a poor fit for an explicitly disciplinary journal. To illustrate: the American Journal of Sociology, a leading journal in the field of sociology, has published nine articles (including a book review) with the word “biology” or “genetics” in the title or abstract since 1991, while publishing 75 items on “inequality” or “stratification” in the same period. In view of the relative lack of transdisciplinary focus in journals associated with the discipline of sociology, researchers have often turned to such as The Journals of Gerontology or The Gerontologist. While not as career enhancing as published articles in the American Journal of Sociology, articles in such journals do certainly contribute to transdisciplinary conversations.

Professional societies often parallel this disciplinary bias. Significant development of scholars occurs in the separate professional societies, such as the American Sociological Association. Professional societies' conferences, sections, workshops, and publications are core institutional venues that facilitate scholarly growth. Few such institutional homes exist for fostering interdisciplinary exposure and exchange.

Disciplinary Preferences of Funding Agencies

Funding presents another immense roadblock for transdisciplinary work. Funding agencies often maintain disciplinary identities, inviting and reviewing proposals that will deepen work in particular disciplines. Constructing a proposal outside these conventions can leave a research team outside these funding streams. For example, study sections at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) tend to be disciplinarily and theoretically narrow and are not always open to research that truly incorporates the perspectives of multiple disciplines. This focus is critical because the way NIH characterizes research deeply affects how new research proposals are viewed and funded.

Funding can be a particular impediment at the earliest stages of transdisciplinary work on aging issues. The whole process of forming a team, identifying talented representatives of different disciplines willing to engage in a team enterprise, and formulating the shared models and methodologies that the team will use is an endeavor that itself takes substantial resources. Funding at the early stages can make all the difference for constructing grant proposals that will be recognizable and acceptable to conventional major funders who are looking for mature teams with established methodologies already showing preliminary results.

Disciplinary Career Paths

A final set of constraints to transdisciplinary work is the incentive structure for individual researchers, particularly as those constraints affect the opportunities, promotion, and mobility of junior researchers. Even as the research of greatest impact is being conducted by teams, the academic departments of universities continue to evaluate their junior faculty members on the basis of their achievements within a discipline, strictly defined, and to insist on contributions made independently. Likewise, different disciplines have differing basis for judging impact—some highly value published results in specific publications; others give higher value to the presentation of results at conferences. Such differences in what counts as a rewardable activity may be a substantial impediment for junior faculty.

The lack of opportunities to publish transdisciplinary work on aging (given the disciplinary focus of many scholarly journals) or to present it at the conferences of professional societies (organized, again, by discipline) clearly puts at risk the chance for junior researchers to attain tenure or advance. Choosing transdisciplinary approach for their research may be harmful to their careers.


None of these roadblocks to transdisciplinary aging research is insurmountable. Indeed, many bridges to transdisciplinary research are now being constructed or proposed. Researchers are demanding and devising the institutional and administrative structures they need to facilitate transdisciplinary research. Journals and professional societies are giving attention to and creating opportunities for sharing transdisciplinary research findings. Some funders are supporting transdisciplinary research and creating stepping stones for transdisciplinary career tracks.

Institutional and Administrative Bridges

Institutional and administrative bridges to transdisciplinary research take many forms. Some transdisciplinary research initiatives involve not only several disciplines, but also multiple teams and several different institutions. A few examples illustrate transdisciplinary initiatives at different institutional levels.1

The Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience (CCSN) at the University of Chicago broadly addresses neural, hormonal, cellular, and genetic mechanisms and their effects on the mind, behavior, and health. Specific topics pursued by the center's research teams range widely, from genetic expression of social experiences to posttraumatic stress syndrome among military veterans. All the research projects share a common characteristic: research teams that are deliberately transdisciplinary.

The Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study (CHASRS) is another transdisciplinary initiative that has made an effort to transcend institutional barriers, such as the departmental segmentation of most universities. Within CHASRS, researchers from psychology, sociology, demography, and biostatistics have studied how social isolation affects the cardiovascular, immune, and nervous systems of affected individuals. They have directly confronted their different disciplinary conceptualizations of key phenomena, and their utilization of different types of data. Their efforts have resulted in some important synergies involving measures and datasets. Some of the questions and a loneliness scale developed and piloted in the relatively small CHASRS studies were swiftly adopted by the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) in its far more extensive longitudinal data collection effort. CHASRS also created a social network measure that is now included in the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project, another national population-based study of health and social factors among older adults.

The Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) also takes a multidisciplinary as well as cross-national approach to developing a panel database of microdata on health, socioeconomic status, and social and family networks. The survey collects data from more than 55,000 individuals aged 50 or older from 20 European countries (Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy, 2012).

Like the HRS, with which it is harmonized, SHARE attempts to capture the dynamic character of the aging process and link it with other measures. For example, the German part of SHARE wave 4 contains three scientific method projects that include innovative biomarkers (e.g., dried blood spots, waist circumference, and blood pressure), linking the SHARE data with the German pension data and conducting nonresponse experiments.

The Department of Health Care Policy at the Harvard University Medical School, one of nine departments at the school, was conceived in the late 1980s to be explicitly multidisciplinary, enabling physicians and social scientists to work together. This program houses the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars Program in which four different disciplines—social epidemiology, public policy, history of science, and neuroscience—work together on health solutions, including work on aging health.

The Health Care Policy Department's Catalyst Health Disparities Research Program promotes new collaborative research, education, and training opportunities in the biomedical, clinical, and social sciences to address racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, and other disparities in health and health care. The program facilitates Harvard-wide research on health disparities through research and methods seminars, personalized consultations, networking events, and transdisciplinary condition-specific symposia. The program also provides training and mentorship opportunities for junior faculty, fellows, and students interested in health disparities research. Since the department's inception, some 15 other medical schools have established similar transdisciplinary departments of health policy research.

Perhaps the effort most explicitly aimed at constructing bridges to transdisciplinary research in an academic setting is the Arete Initiative of the University of Chicago.2 This university-wide research development program facilitates transdisciplinary and multi-institution collaboration. The progam's staff members help identify individual participants and institutional collaborators for major research projects addressing questions that must be approached with breadth. The Arete Initiative advises researchers attempting to build research teams, define projects, pursue funds, broker collaborative arrangements, and manage the budgets, staff, logistics, and operating norms of extensive projects. The Arete initiative has provided both impetus and crucial guidance for transdisciplinary research teams addressing on complex questions.

Another organization building bridges to transdisciplinary science is the MacArthur Foundation, which has a long history of investing in innovative science on aging. In addition to funding the first round of Midlife in the United States (MIDUS), which was subsequently funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), the Foundation has made significant infrastructure investments. Since 1982, the MacArthur Foundation has established 24 networks (Adler and Stewart, 2010, p. 253). Their purpose is to enable sustained programmatic investigations that transcend boundaries among the biological, behavioral, and social sciences. The MacArthur Foundation describes these networks as “research institutions without wall that bring together highly talented individuals from a spectrum of disciplines, perspectives, and research methods.”3 Current networks include the Research Network on an Aging Society, the Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, the Research Network on Youth and Political Participation, and the Research Network on Law and Neuroscience.

Journals and Professional Societies Acknowledging Transdisciplinary Research

Journals and professional societies can also rise to the challenge of fostering transdisciplinary work on aging. Some discipline-specific journals are publishing occasional issues or regular sections featuring transdisciplinary work—see, for example, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (2008) Supplement 1; the American Journal of Sociology Special Issue on Exploring Genetics and Social Structure (2008). Journals can further this effort by selecting and encouraging reviewers to recommend that scholars submitting papers consider and incorporate insights from other disciplines.

Some professional societies are taking similar initiatives. The Society for Research in Child Development, for example, has decided that every third president must be from a field outside of developmental psychology (Duncan, 2012, p. 7). Furthermore, it has made promoting transdisciplinary work part of its strategic plan; it therefore funds proposals for workshops and conferences on issues across disciplines and is beginning a series of themed meetings in the years between its conventional biennial meetings (Duncan, 2012, p. 13).

Funding for Transdisciplinary Research

Some major funding organizations have stepped forward to fund transdisciplinary work. Although study sections at the NIH can be narrowly disciplinary, the NIH has undertaken other efforts to support transdisciplinary research. Its program projects, for example, include clusters of projects on a common theme. With shared administrative cores, these offer one mechanism through which research teams and topics can incorporate a number of disciplines. For example, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities has announced a program to establish specialized Transdisciplinary Collaborative Centers for Health Disparities Research that support transdisciplinary coalitions of academic institutions, community organizations, service providers and systems, government agencies, and other stakeholders focused on priority areas in minority health and health disparities. This initiative will support transdisciplinary targeted research, implementation, and dissemination activities that transcend customary approaches, and “silo” organizational structures to address critical questions at multiple levels in innovative ways.4 A number of NIH component organizations, including NIA, have come together to sponsor research applications on fatigue and fatigability in aging with the specific intention of promoting “research studies employing transdisciplinary approaches that could lead to increased understanding of mechanisms contributing to, assessment of, or potential interventions for, increased fatigue or fatigability in older persons.”5

Funding at the early stages of transdisciplinary research can be particularly difficult to obtain. The NIA-funded Centers on the Demography and Economics of Aging, which are interdisciplinary by design, have provided significant funding for pilot projects. All of the centers investigate aspects of health and health care, the societal impact of population aging and the economic and social circumstances of older people. In addition, each center has its own disciplinary specializations, and they are encouraged to interrelate their work. Some of the specialization topics covered in the various centers are global aging and cross-national comparisons, the biodemography of aging, the relationships among biology and genetics, health and mortality, and life expectancy—all topics addressed in this report. They are a natural transdisciplinary training ground in that they habitually bring together researchers across disciplines for preliminary research that sets the stage for preparation of a proposal for a larger project.

Adler and Stewart (2010, p. 258) also praise the MacArthur Foundation for early sustained flexible funding as the Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health developed its research agenda as a group. This funding permitted initial time for exploration and discussion, some risky pilot work, and the latitude to act on emergent opportunities. With MacArthur Foundation support, the network was able to explore some new ways to test hypotheses, identify some ongoing data collection efforts that could be expanded, and hold meetings with enough regularity to forge a shared agenda. The research network was then able to successfully compete for funds from more traditional sources. Thus, Adler and Stewart conclude, “in the same way that venture capital energized the biotech industry through early funding of promising ideas, the ability to fund promising ideas that would not have sufficient preliminary data to attract NIH funding, was an extremely effective use of our funds.”

Advancing Transdisciplinary Research Careers

Transdisciplinary research cannot advance without researchers, who require feasible career paths that provide opportunities, resources, and recognition of their work. These are beginning to become available. Some integrative research networks have made a point of supporting graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculties, although the insufficiency of formal positions for junior members can be a problem. Some researchers also advocate master lectures at professional societies, seminars organized across departments, and service on panels reviewing transdisciplinary work. Training grants, such as the T-32 grants funded by NIH, generally include graduate and postdoctoral scholars in a number of disciplines in seminars, classes, workshops, and projects, fostering transdisciplinary understanding, knowledge, and collaboration.

The number of grants submitted on the sociology of aging is partly a function of the number of young scholars of aging coming out of the pipeline. Given that NIA center grants and the training provided in those centers is transdisciplinary, these training grants provide an important foundation for junior scholars who will define and carry out the research, both disciplinary and transdisciplinary, on the sociology, social demography, and social epidemiology of aging. Whereas datasets like HRS, MIDUS, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, and the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study create research opportunities for new generations of scholars, they also provide rich opportunities for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty to learn about how surveys are done, how research questions are developed, and how scholars seek external funding to support these projects. All of these opportunities provide a foundation for a vigorous, enthusiastic, and skilled workforce to carry out an agenda of future research.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has established and funds a notable series of programs of postdoctoral fellowships, all of which have as a key goal training young scholars to do transdisciplinary research. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars program funds recent graduates of medical school to train in program development and research methods, helping them to find solutions to the challenges posed by the U.S. health-care system, community health and health services research. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholars in Health Policy Research Program is a two-year fellowship targeting outstanding new Ph.D.s in economics, political science, and sociology to advance their involvement in health policy research. This program strongly encourages collaboration, cooperation, and shared understandings among these disciplines. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholars Program is based on the principle that progress in the field of population health depends upon transdisciplinary collaboration and exchange. Its goal is to improve health by training scholars to rigorously investigate connections among biological, genetic, behavioral, environmental, economic, and social determinants of health, and to develop, evaluate, and disseminate knowledge and interventions that integrate and act on these determinants to improve health.

Recommendation 5. The National Institute on Aging should encourage universities and research organizations to intentionally promote transdisciplinary research by:

  • Reducing institutional barriers to transdisciplinary research and interdisciplinary research teams.
  • Developing structures to encourage input and participation from outside ongoing projects in such a way as to bring together, in a transdisciplinary research environment, researchers from several institutions, and representing multiple approaches.



The committee conducted site visits to transdisciplinary research teams working at the University of Chicago and Harvard University in 2011.

Copyright 2013 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Bookshelf ID: NBK184361


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