By Prof Petra Bester
Research Director for AUTHeR

Habitually switching to the 7 pm news today promises to unfold the grim realities in South Africa. I anticipate this heaviness of overwhelmed gloom and yet succumb to the call.

“Good evening, fellow South Africans, and welcome to the 7 o’clock news, where you get the best news, presented truthfully by a dedicated journalist…….”

With a known internal heaviness, I start listening to the television anchor, focusing on not missing the essential information – which tragedy, where, by whom and why…. And every time, despite a conscious awareness to control my thoughts, my mind compliantly fades into the construction of ideas about how and where transdisciplinary research is essential for change.

It becomes a strange realisation that the grand challenges in my country are the backdrop to real-life research opportunities. And is this not precisely what we need to instil into our students and fellow academia? For example, the recent media disruption activated by the letter from Dr Tim de Maayer from the Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital, sketching his daily experiences and pleading from executive management to improve health service operations, highlighted the systemic complexities in our health systems. The eNyobeni Tavern tragedy where the world learned in horror how 21 teens died, and whilst the cause is still unclear, the alarmingly high rates of alcohol abuse and liquor outlets’ non-compliance to the law presented the systemic social complexities in which we expect people to thrive. The rising new HIV infections amongst adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) in South Africa against the traditional health promotion narrative of safe sex, condoms and preventing teenage pregnancy represents the dark worlds of grand challenges that we can so easily simplify or detach or reduce from what living in poverty or surviving through transactional sex indeed entail.

By now, the news anchor had announced the weather forecast, and I had conceptualised a transdisciplinary project in my mind…..

So fellow researchers, be reminded again that transdisciplinary research is an ideal approach when you face complex and ‘wicked’ problems when we don’t know where the problem originated or how can it be resolved, when a health professional, a politician, a traditional health practitioner, an economist, a lawyer and the non-academic members of communities view the same challenge differently and yet when we don’t have the luxury of making mistakes. Then, we can activate transdisciplinary research to include the wisdom, experiences and knowledge of the non-academia and academia to co-create. Transdisciplinary research is an intensive, time-consuming and expensive approach. This is not research that requires the academic to enter the field, obtain data and move out to publish output accessible to the scientific community only. It is research built on relationships, mutual benefit, negotiating access into communities, and presents elements of participatory action research with moments of transcendence beyond the traditional research process.

The news concludes with quick highlights; I’ve again missed the detail. Switching off the television, I return to routine tasks, wondering why we don’t do more transdisciplinary research…..

I know within the time-driven processes of higher education, it is challenging to conduct transdisciplinary research except for established and more extensive research projects. May this reflection invite fellow researchers to link with AUTHeR; we can collaborate to plan and implement transdisciplinary research projects, and our heart is to contribute to the real, complex and contentious challenges in our beautiful country.