Actions speak louder than words: designing transdisciplinary approaches to enact solutions

  • Vanessa R. LevesqueEmail author
  • Aram J. K. Calhoun
  • Kathleen P. Bell


Sustainability science uses a transdisciplinary research process in which academic and non-academic partners collaborate to identify a common problem and co-produce knowledge to develop more sustainable solutions. Sustainability scientists have advanced the theory and practice of facilitating collaborative efforts such that the knowledge created is usable. There has been less emphasis, however, on the last step of the transdisciplinary process: enacting solutions. We analyzed a case study of a transdisciplinary research effort in which co-produced policy simulation information shaped the creation of a new policy mechanism. More specifically, by studying the development of a mechanism for conserving vernal pool ecosystems, we found that four factors helped overcome common challenges to acting upon new information: creating a culture of learning, co-producing policy simulations that acted as boundary objects, integrating research into solution development, and employing an adaptive management approach. With an increased focus on these four factors that enable action, we can better develop the same level of nuanced theoretical concepts currently characterizing the earlier phases of transdisciplinary research, and the practical advice for deliberately designing these efforts.


Collaboration Co-production Transdisciplinary Knowledge to action Land use policy Vernal pool 


Funding Information

This research was supported by National Science Foundation award EPS-0904155 to Maine EPSCOR Sustainability Solutions Initiative at the University of Maine. This is Maine Agriculture and Forest Experiment Station Publication 3639 and was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Hatch Projects ME0-021705 and ME0-031802 through the Maine Agricultural & Forest Experiment Station.


  1. Baldwin RF, deMaynadier PG (2009) Assessing threats to pool-breeding amphibian habitat in an urbanizing landscape. Biol Conserv 142(8):1628–1638. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bauer DM, Paton PWC, Swallow SK (2010) Are wetland regulations cost effective for species protection? A case study of amphibian metapopulations. Ecol Appl 20(3):798–815 Retrieved from CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bauer DM, Bell KP, Nelson EJ, Calhoun AJK (2017) Managing small natural features: a synthesis of economic issues and emergent opportunities. Biol Conserv 211:80–87. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Beeton RJS, Lynch AJJ (2012) Most of nature: a framework to resolve the twin dilemmas of the decline of nature and rural communities. Environ Sci Pol 23:45–56. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. BenDor TK (2009) A dynamic analysis of the wetland mitigation process and its effects on no net loss policy. Landsc Urban Plan 89(1–2):17–27. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. BenDor TK, Riggsbee JA, Doyle M (2011) Risk and markets for ecosystem services. Environ Sci Technol 45(24):10322–10330. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Binder CR, Absenger-Helmli I, Schilling T (2015) The reality of transdisciplinarity: a framework-based self-reflection from science and practice leaders. Sustain Sci 10(4):545–562. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Blackstock KL, Kelly GJ, Horsey BL (2007) Developing and applying a framework to evaluate participatory research for sustainability. Ecol Econ 60(4):726–742. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Brandt P, Ernst A, Gralla F, Luederitz C, Lang DJ, Newig J et al (2013) A review of transdisciplinary research in sustainability science. Ecol Econ 92:1–15. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Brody SD, Highfield W, Carrasco V (2004) Measuring the collective planning capabilities of local jurisdictions to manage ecological systems in southern Florida. Landsc Urban Plan 69(1):33–50. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Buizer J, Jacobs K, Cash DW (2016) Making short-term climate forecasts useful: linking science and action. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 113(17):4597–4602. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Calhoun AJK, deMaynadier PG (2008) Science and conservation of vernal pools. CRC Press, Boca RatonGoogle Scholar
  13. Calhoun AJK, Jansujwicz JS, Bell KP, Hunter ML (2014) Improving management of small natural features on private lands by negotiating the science-policy boundary for Maine vernal pools. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 111(30):11002–11006. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Calhoun AJK, Mushet DM, Alexander LC, DeKeyser ES, Fowler L, Lane CR et al (2017) The significant surface-water connectivity of “geographically isolated wetlands”. Wetlands.
  15. Cash DW, Clark WC, Alcock F, Dickson NM, Eckley N, Guston DH et al (2003) Knowledge systems for sustainable development. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 100(14):8086–8091. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Clark WC (2007) Sustainability science: a room of its own. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 104(6):1737–1738. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Clark WC, Dickson NM (2003) Sustainability science: the emerging research program. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 100(14):8059–8061. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Clark WC, van Kerkhoff L, Lebel L, Gallopin GC (2016a) Crafting usable knowledge for sustainable development. Proc Natl Acad Sci 113(17):4570–4578. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Clark WC, Tomich TP, van Noordwijk M, Guston DH, Catacutan D, Dickson NM, McNie E (2016b) Boundary work for sustainable development: natural resource management at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 113(7):4615–4622. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Cohen MJ, Creed IF, Alexander L, Basu NB, Calhoun AJK, Craft C et al (2016) Do geographically isolated wetlands influence landscape functions? Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 113(8):1–9. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Colburn E, Weeks SC, Reed SK (2008) Diversity and ecology of vernal pool invertebrates. In: Calhoun AJK, DeMaynadier PG (eds) Science and conservation of vernal pools in northeastern North America. CRC Press, Boca Raton, pp 107–124Google Scholar
  22. Corcoran PB, Walker KE, Wals AEJ (2004) Case studies, make-your-case studies, and case stories: a critique of case-study methodology in sustainability in higher education. Environ Educ Res 10(1):7–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Dilling L, Lemos MC (2011) Creating usable science: opportunities and constraints for climate knowledge use and their implications for science policy. Glob Environ Chang 21(2):680–689. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Doremus H (2003) A policy portfolio approach to biodiversity protection on private lands. Environ Sci Pol 6(3):217–232. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Feiock RC, Tavares AF, Lubell MN (2008) Policy instrument choices for growth management and land use regulation. Policy Stud J 36(3):461–480. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Freeman RC, Bell KP, Calhoun AJK, Loftin CS (2012) Incorporating economic models into seasonal pool conservation planning. Wetlands 32(3):509–520. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Gerber J-D, Rissman AR (2012) Land-conservation strategies: the dynamic relationship between acquisition and land-use planning. Environ Plan A 44(8):1836–1855. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Godemann J (2008) Knowledge integration: a key challenge for transdisciplinary cooperation. Environ Educ Res 14(6):625–641. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Golden HE, Creed IF, Ali G, Basu NB, Neff BP, Rains MC et al (2017) Integrating geographically isolated wetlands into land management decisions. Front Ecol Environ.
  30. Guston DH (2001) Boundary organizations in environmental policy and science: an introduction. Sci Technol Hum Values 26(4):399–408. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Harris F, Lyon F (2013) Transdisciplinary environmental research: building trust across professional cultures. Environ Sci Policy 31:109–119. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hart DD, Calhoun AJK (2010) Rethinking the role of ecological research in the sustainable management of freshwater ecosystems. Freshw Biol 55:258–269. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Hockenstein JB, Stavins RN, Whitehead BW (1997) Crafting the next generation of market-based environmental tools. Environ Sci Pol Sustain Dev 39(4):12–33. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hunter ML (2005) A mesofilter conservation strategy to complement fine and coarse filters. Conserv Biol 19(4):1025–1029. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Irwin EG, Bell KP, Geoghegan J (2003) Modeling and managing urban growth at the rural-urban fringe: a parcel-level model of residential land use change. Agric Resour Econ Rev 32(1):83–102CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Jacobs K, Lebel L, Buizer J, Addams L, Matson P, McCullough E et al (2016) Linking knowledge with action in the pursuit of sustainable water-resources management. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 113(17):4591–4596. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Jansujwicz JS, Calhoun AJK, Lilieholm RJ (2013) The Maine Vernal Pool Mapping and Assessment Program: engaging municipal officials and private landowners in community-based citizen science. Environ Manag 52(6):1369–1385. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Kirchhoff CJ, Carmen Lemos M, Dessai S (2013) Actionable knowledge for environmental decision making: broadening the usability of climate science. Annu Rev Environ Resour 38(1):393–414. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Lang DJ, Wiek A, Bergmann M, Stauffacher M, Martens P, Moll P, Swilling M, Thomas CJ (2012) Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. Sustain Sci 7(SUPPL. 1):25–43. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. LeVert M (2008) Public access to Maine’s private lands: a cultural and economic asset. Montana The Magazine Of Western HistoryGoogle Scholar
  41. Levesque VR, Bell KP, Calhoun AJK (2017a) Planning for sustainability in small municipalities: the influence of interest groups, growth patterns, and institutional characteristics. J Plan Educ Res 37(3).
  42. Levesque VR, Calhoun AJK, Bell KP, Johnson TR (2017b) Turning contention into collaboration: engaging power, trust, and learning in collaborative networks. Soc Nat Resour 1920(May):1–16. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Maiello A, Battaglia M, Daddi T, Frey M (2011) Urban sustainability and knowledge: theoretical heterogeneity and the need of a transdisciplinary framework. A tale of four towns. Futures 43(10):1164–1174. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. McCullough E, Matson P (2012) Linking knowledge with action for sustainable development: a case study of change and effectiveness. In: Matson P (ed) Seeds of sustainability. Island Press, Washington D.C., pp 63–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. McGreavy B, Calhoun AJK, Jansujwicz J, Levesque VR (2016) Citizen science and natural resource governance: program design for vernal pool policy innovation. Ecol Soc 21(2):48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. McKee A, Guimaraes MH, Pinto-Correia T (2015) Social capital accumulation and the role of the researcher: an example of a transdisciplinary visioning process for the future of agriculture in Europe. Environ Sci Policy 50:88–99. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Miller TR (2013) Constructing sustainability science: emerging perspectives and research trajectories. Sustain Sci 8(2):279–293. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Miller TR, Wiek A, Sarewitz D, Robinson J, Olsson L, Kriebel D, Loorbach D (2014) The future of sustainability science: a solutions-oriented research agenda. Sustain Sci 9(2):239–246. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Norton DA (2000) Conservation biology and private land: shifting the focus. Conserv Biol 14(5):1221–1223CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Paloniemi R, Tikka PM (2008) Ecological and social aspects of biodiversity conservation on private lands. Environ Sci Pol 11(4):336–346. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Pirard R (2012) Market-based instruments for biodiversity and ecosystem services: a lexicon. Environ Sci Policy 19–20:59–68. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Polk M (2014) Achieving the promise of transdisciplinarity: a critical exploration of the relationship between transdisciplinary research and societal problem solving. Sustain Sci 9(4):439–451. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Polk M (2015) Transdisciplinary co-production: designing and testing a transdisciplinary research framework for societal problem solving. Futures 65:110–122. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Quinn JE, Wood JM (2017) Application of a coupled human natural system framework to organize and frame challenges and opportunities for biodiversity conservation on private lands. Ecol Soc 22(1):39. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Schauppenlehner-Kloyber E, Penker M (2015) Managing group processes in transdisciplinary future studies: how to facilitate social learning and capacity building for self-organised action towards sustainable urban development? Futures 65:57–71. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Shogren JF (ed) (2005) Species at risk: using economic incentives to shelter endangered species on private lands. University of Texas Press, AustinGoogle Scholar
  57. Shortle J (2013) Economics and environmental markets: lessons from water-quality trading. Agric Resour Econ Rev 42(1):57–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Stokes DL, Hanson MF, Oaks DD, Straub JE, Ponio AV (2009) Local land-use planning to conserve biodiversity: planners’ perspectives on what works. Conserv Biol 24(2):450–460. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. van Kerkhoff L, Lebel L (2006) Linking knowledge and action for sustainable development. Annu Rev Environ Resour 31(1):445–477. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. van Kerkhoff L, Lebel L (2015) Coproductive capacities: rethinking science-governance relations in a diverse world. Ecol Soc 20(1).
  61. Wiek A, Ness B, Schweizer-Ries P, Brand FS, Farioli F (2012) From complex systems analysis to transformational change: a comparative appraisal of sustainability science projects. Sustain Sci 7(SUPPL. 1):5–24. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Wiek A, Harlow J, Melnick R, van der Leeuw S, Fukushi K, Takeuchi K, Farioli F, Yamba F, Blake A, Geiger C, Kutter R (2015) Sustainability science in action: a review of the state of the field through case studies on disaster recovery, bioenergy, and precautionary purchasing. Sustain Sci 10(1):17–31. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Wilcove DS, Lee J (2004) Using economic and regulatory incentives to restore endangered species: lessons learned from three new programs. Conserv Biol 18(3):639–645CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Wuelser G, Pohl C (2016) How researchers frame scientific contributions to sustainable development: a typology based on grounded theory. Sustain Sci 11:1–12. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Wyborn CA (2015) Connecting knowledge with action through coproductive capacities: adaptive governance and connectivity conservation. Ecol Soc 20(1):11. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Yin RK (2009) Case study research: design and methods (Fourth). Sage Publications, Inc, Thousand Oaks. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Zscheischler J, Rogga S (2015) Transdisciplinarity in land use science - a review of concepts, empirical findings and current practices. Futures 65:28–44. CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© AESS 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sustainability Dual Major, University of New HampshireDurhamUSA
  2. 2.Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Conservation BiologyUniversity of MaineOronoUSA
  3. 3.School of EconomicsUniversity of MaineOronoUSA

Personalised recommendations