By Alex Giurca, PhD student within the BBW ForWerts Graduate Program

We’ve heard it before: in order for science to push the boundaries of knowledge, scientists from all backgrounds and disciplines must come together. Global issues are not divided into academic disciplines and departments. They require trans- and interdisciplinary thinking and cooperation. The problems facing our world today: population growth, resource scarcity, environmental degradation and climate change, don’t stem from one source only, but are the result of the interplay of different environmental, cultural and socio-technical systems. With these pressing problems, we now need research cooperation more than ever. Coming up with solutions to these problems requires “boundaryless” thinking.  

As a response to these global challenges, European and numerous other countries around the world are investing heavily into the transition to a more sustainable, bio-based economy, known as “bioeconomy”. Generally, bioeconomy can be defined as an economy where the basic building blocks for materials, chemicals and energy are derived from renewable, biological resources. Enabling the transition to bioeconomy requires close cooperation and knowledge transfer between various different actors from multiple sectors and fields. Our greatest asset is our social capital and scientific knowhow accumulated over centuries. But how to foster such scientific cooperation for greening our economy?

One way, is to support young scientists and encourage cooperation as early on in their careers as possible. The Ministry for Science, Research and Arts of the German federal state of Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany has invested in a bioeconomy graduate program to support the development of interdisciplinary research cooperation between young scientists. The result was the “BBW ForWerts” graduate program. Since 2014, this program focuses on the education of scientists with interdisciplinary knowledge in both natural and social sciences. The overall purpose: to enable, understand and scrutinize the opportunities and pitfalls of transitioning to a bioeconomy.

The graduate schools has so far attracted young researchers from around the world to pursue doctoral studies at different renowned universities (Freiburg, Heidelberg, Stuttgart, Hohenheim, Ulm) in southern Germany. I am one of them, pursuing my doctoral degree in forest and environmental policy at the University of Freiburg. We receive extensive academic training in a vibrant and stimulating scientific environment. During the program, we have the opportunity to participate in summer schools, workshops, method courses and excursions. The goal is to gain expert insight into our own research fields, but also an overview of the other focus areas in the bioeconomy. Networking with fellow students, industrial partners and research institutions are a crucial part of the BBW ForWerts graduate program. But does this really work?

In my experience it does. I am a forester by training and a social scientist at heart. In my research, I look at the actors driving the bioeconomy transition, the political discourses and interests they promote. I regard bioeconomy broadly, and abstractly, as a social-technical transition. I have a general understanding of the bioeconomy concept from a socio-scientific perspective, but when it comes down to understanding the practicalities and technical feasibilities of this concept, I am lost, but I know to whom to turn to. If I want to understand the impacts of increased harvests on soil productivity, I can turn to a colleague who is a soil specialist and deals with these issues in her research. If I want to learn about the feasibility of having constant biomass supply to feed bio-refineries, I can turn to another colleague who models these resource flows. If I want to understand the potentials of algae production as alternative food source, I turn to yet another colleague who is an algae specialist. You get the message. All the disciplines and questions related to bioeconomy one can possibly think of are represented in our graduate school. We get to meet several times a year and listen to each other’s work progress, ask questions and try to understand each other’s ideas and struggles. A chemist and a forester don’t necessarily speak the same language, and no one said it was easy to understand what each of us is doing. But we can try and learn from each other. This learning process requires patience, openness and a willingness to learn.

Little by little, we see the potential of this approach and the value of cross-disciplinary research. Some of us have already joined forces and have applied for interdisciplinary research projects. Look us up in a couple of years and see if our cross-disciplinary experiment has succeeded. For now, you are welcome to get in touch. We have partners all over the world, from China to South America, and are constantly on the lookout for new cooperation. If this sounds interesting to you, and if you’re also passionate about bioeconomy and interdisciplinary research, get in touch. We’d be happy to hear from you.

Also, check out our website: or contact our managing director, Dr Ines Petersen.