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International Organization for Chemical Sciences in Development

One-World Chemistry

OWC – Cross-Disciplinary Approaches

Importance of cross-disciplinary approaches

Traditionally, chemists have been trained largely, if not entirely in their own discipline and have then been drawn into engagement with scientists from other disciplines. However, there are disadvantages to this compartmentalization of sciences:

In addition to challenging the capacities of individual chemists to adapt to working with scientists in other disciplines, there are also major systemic barriers to working across disciplinary boundaries. These include factors intrinsic to the nature of chemistry itself; structural factors in academic institutions and the persistence of traditional attitudes towards discipline-based subjects that become silos; difficulties in securing research funds and in publishing work; and the relative lack of value that some institutions place on cross-disciplinary and multi-authored research, which can hamper career progression.

Nevertheless, chemistry has increasingly been drawn into cross-disciplinary engagements, the nature of which can take a number of different forms as illustrated below [1] (Note: while they can be categorised separately in principle as below, there are often overlaps in practice with elements of the different forms being used in combination or tandem.)

owc modes
Transition of modes of working: disciplinary,
multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary

Many of chemistry's greatest opportunities for contribution to human progress have been, and in the future will be, at the interfaces with other subjects, since the challenges that the world faces are complex and often require transdisciplinary solutions. Approaches that are cross-disciplinary in nature need to be fostered for chemistry to most effectively contribute.

In an analysis of the field, four criteria were suggested [6] for transdisciplinary research: (1) Problem orientation: research questions derived from "real-world" problems. (2) A suitable definition of sub-problems which is a prerequisite for the integration of the results. (3) Free choice of scientific methods adequate for each of the sub-problems. (4) Close relations between the sub-problems are crucial for the development of an overall solution. Once there is recognition of the real-world problem and the scientific problem is defined independently of disciplines, a four-stage process of problem solving is proposed: (1) Understanding of the problem: Identification and analysis of main questions. (2) Separation of the problem into fields of application of different methods (sub-problems). (3) Solution of the sub-problems with mutual connections. (4) Integration of the results into a solution of the entire problem —with the cross-disciplinary results leading to application of the proposed solutions. Examples include:

It is also notable that the adoption of cross-disciplinary approaches can make the field of chemistry much more attractive to potential students [19].


  1. W. Colón et al. Chemical biology at the US National Science Foundation. Nature Chemical Biology 2008, 4, 511-514, doi:10.1038/nchembio0908-511.
  2. B. Nicolescu. Charter of Trans-disciplinarity. Adopted by the 1st World Congress of Transdisciplinarity, Convento da Arrabida, Portugal, November 1994.
  3. Harvard School of Public Health defines trans-disciplinary research as research efforts conducted by investigators from different disciplines working jointly to create new conceptual, theoretical, methodological, and translational innovations that integrate and move beyond discipline-specific approaches to address a common problem.
  4. U. Zoller. Environmental chemistry: The disciplinary/correction-transdisciplinary/prevention paradigm shift. Envir. Sci and Pollution Res. 2000, 7, 63-5.
  5. National Research Council. Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences. Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond. Washington D.C.: National Academies Press 2014, 153pp, isbn: 978-0-309-30151-0.
  6. J. Jaeger, M. Scheringer. The Structure of Transdisciplinary Research – Six Case Studies. ETH, Zürich, 1998.
  7. M. Scheringer. What are the Objectives of Environmental Science? A Critical Discussion. ETH, Zürich, 2013.
  8. G.H. Hadorn, C. Pohl, M. Scheringer. Methodology of transdisciplinary research. In: G.H. Hadorn (Ed.) Unity of knowledge (in transdiciplinary research for sustainability). UNESCO & Encyclopaedia of Life Support Systems, Vol II, 2015, 10pp.
  9. K. Takai. Introduction to the Transdisciplinary International Conference on Aromatic Amino Acids and Related Substances: Chemistry, Biology, Medicine, and Applications. J. Nutrition 2007, 137, 1501S-1503S.
  10. Binghamton Universty: Smart energy.
  11. University of Vienna: Chemistry meets Microbiology.
  12. Northwestern University: Chemistry of Life Processes Institute.
  13. National Institutes of Health: Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program.
  14. K.G. Provan, P.I. Clark, T.R. Huerta. Transdiciplinarity among tobacco harm reduction researchers: A network analytic approach.
  15. S. Lacombe, L. Sabatier, F. Wien. Spatio-temporal radiation biology: transdisciplinary advances for biomedical applications. ESF-EMBO Symposium 2009.
  16. J.P. Cammas. Project STRAP: Trans-disciplinary collaboration to investigate volcano plumes risks. French National Research Agency 2014.
  17. Silicamics: Conference on biochemistry and genomics of silicification and silicifiers. Brest, France 21-25 September 2015.
  18. J.M. Powell, G.A. Broderick. Transdisciplinary Soil Science Research: Impacts of Dairy Nutrition on Manure Chemistry and the Environment. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 2011, 75, 2071-8.
  19. D. Blankenhorn. New Tools Let Chemistry Solve the Energy Crisis. www.renewableenergyworld.com 16 May 2011.

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