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Science in society: the challenges of solution-oriented sustainability research (and some hints for solving them)

With declarations such as “The Future We Want” and frameworks like the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the question has increasingly gained prominence how science and policy can better collaborate to support transformations towards global sustainability. While the “Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change” (IPCC) pioneered such global science-policy interactions in the field of climate change and related issues, the “Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services” (IPBES) is a similarly significant example. The ambition to increase both politicians’ awareness of scientific findings (and research challenges), and scientists’ awareness of political information needs (and societal challenges) is highlighted by the establishment of a new international science council, into which the “International Council for Science” (ICSU) and the “International Social Science Council” (ISSC) have agreed to merge. Equally, the “Knowledge-Action Networks” of Future Earth or, in Germany, the “Science Platform Sustainability 2030” mobilize global scientific and technological expertise to promote practical solutions for sustainable development and strengthen the ties between science and decision-makers.


In order to reflect on these and other developments and to exchange lessons learned, the German Committee Future Earth, in June 2017, engaged in a dialogue with analysts and experts of science-policy interfaces from different fields, including Silke Beck (UFZ Leipzig), Oliver Geden (SWP/University Oxford) and Jörg Mayer-Ries (IASS/BMUB). This blog post summarizes the discussion.


2. Future Earth summit Diskussion


What are the contemporary challenges to science-policy interactions?

Silke Beck, senior research scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ Leipzig, highlighted that (global environmental) research is increasingly asked to advance projects and evaluate policy solutions to achieve and implement the SDGs. The growing demand for policy relevant and “usable” scientific findings also raises novel challenges for performance and role of science in society. In a practical, solution-oriented mode, science and experts will e.g. face difficult questions over how to assess speculative and controversial technological ‘solutions’ such as solar radiation management and how to manage “Big data.” The practical turn often resonates with a ‘participatory turn’. In order to become more responsive to the needs of decision-making on the ground, solution oriented science seeks to perform research with society rather simply providing science for it. The IPBES and Future Earth are one of the first international expert organizations to have systematically developed a strategy for co-production or stakeholder engagement in their own right. Expert bodies such as the IPCC and IPBES are challenged to adapt to a federal or increasingly pluralistic political architecture such as the Paris Agreement. In such contexts, so Beck, ‘nested networks’ have been most successful in providing policy-relevant and actionable insights are. The IPBES, for instance, is experimenting with a decentralized and nested approach to stakeholder cooperation, which is thought to provide scientifically robust knowledge that is also responsive to local context-specific needs.

However, Beck also emphasized, no standard recipe for the production of solutions-oriented scientific knowledge exists. Initial efforts to evaluate experiences of co-production within Future Earth indicate that there are currently no widely accepted and coherent criteria and indicators for judging the overall performance of knowledge production. The definition of “success” varies significantly across disciplines, policy fields, cultural contexts and political levels. What is needed, is a reflection on what kind of criteria are fit for function, who should participate in the evaluation and to what purpose.


What does the “inconsistent” process of decision-making mean for scientists?

Oliver Geden, head of research division Europe at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and in 2017 visiting fellow at the University of Oxford, highlighted “inconsistency” in policy-making as the biggest challenge when providing scientific advice to policy-makers. He outlined how scientists can best deal with it – accept it. Although the public normally assume that decision-making and implementation (should) cohere, in political practice the spheres of “talk”, “decision” and “action” are rather separate. That’s why scientific reports and assessments mostly have no direct impact in politics.

Geden explained this inconsistency by highlighting that “politics is often not directed at solving problems but at competing with other actors in decision-making”. To understand this dynamic is essential for policy advisors, such as scientists and NGOs, because it helps them to better determine windows of opportunities. Geden thus suggests that “scientists should not be preoccupied with criticizing inconsistency in politics even if they disagree with it”. Accordingly, producing scientific knowledge that is relevant for decision-makers means to accept inconsistency as an inherent feature of political practice. This acceptance, of course, entails the risk that inconsistency is unduly imported into scientific practice. But the alternative to taking this risk, so Geden, would be to rely on scientific knowledge assuming political relevance coincidentally, i.e. when recent scientific insights happen to meet contemporary political priorities.


How can scientists help to abridge the knowledge-action gap?

Jörg Mayer-Ries, Head of Division at German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) and, during 2017, senior fellow at the Institute of Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam (IASS), complemented this perspective by sharing his view of how decision-makers and scientists interact from a perspective of a Federal Ministry. He underlined the existing gap between knowledge and action that inhibits the transformations of societies towards sustainability. Scientists, Mayer-Ries emphasised, can help to close this gap but only if science gains a deeper understanding of the structures and processes in politics and political administration and clarifies its own role in driving societal transformations. Regarding cooperation around the issue sustainability, this means that science should acknowledge the Agenda 2030 as a societal contract both for science itself and for political practice. Doing so could be a starting point for additional science-based visions of the future that suggest plausible options and steps needed to reach these visions and associated political goals. It includes advising policymakers on how to design transformation processes to achieve transformations. Referring to the inter- and transdisciplinary challenges and the long-term as global perspective of sustainability science also should define and communicate the limits of scientific knowledge within the community and addressing policy and administration (e.g. regarding normativity, transparency, competences), following science-policy guidelines (e.g. INGSA in general or UBA (Env. Protection Agency) on sustainability research).

In delivering these scientific products, Mayer-Ries highlighted, the new German “Science Platform Sustainability 2030” puts into practice what on an international level has been strongly supported - see also report on “The role of science in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals”. The report outlines that scientists can contribute to the factual basis of the SDG implementation particularly by producing a clear indicator framework for SDGs, evidence-based procedures for evaluating SDG progress, and co-designed scientific assessments especially of the interlinkages and interactions among the SDGs. Scientific networks such as Future Earth can mobilise science in different parts of the world, importantly facilitate the collaboration, and create a voice of science on the international level.


With numerous further insights to the discussion from members of the German Committee Future Earth such as Anita Engels (Professor of Sociology, Hamburg University), Andreas Ernst (Professor of Environmental Psychology, Kassel University), Armin Grunwald (Professor of Philosophy, Karlsruher Institut für Technologie), Karen Pittel (Professor of Economics, ifo Insitut für Wirtschaftsforschung), Martin Visbeck (Professor of Marine Sciences, GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research Kiel), to name a few, it became clear that scientists often hesitate to capitalize on existing opportunities to contribute to sustainability transformations. Reasons for this hesitance include the following:

  • lack of knowledge about the existing opportunities for engaging policy-makers (window of opportunities);
  • The incentive structure within the academic system that is not conducive to exchange with policy-makers, unless e.g. some research organisations in Germany identified science-policy advice as one of its priorities;
  • The different timescales on which science and politics work respectively;
  • A fear that the autonomy of science might be diminished and its internal organisation be affected if exchange with policy-makers is intensified;
  • reluctance to engage actors and organisations that can mediate between science and policy (“willingness” to participate and share information).


Tackling these issues, it was summarised, would require a professionalization of the science-policy interaction that would mean e.g., 

  • to include a reflexive element in solution-oriented scientific work so that both the quality of research and the value of current activities for politics are considered,

  • to engage in capacity building and training (e.g. bi-organisational peer groups),

  • to create appropriate science-policy interfaces in which scientists can get involved.


To be sure, science will not be able to address all the barriers to global sustainability transformations alone: the marginalization of sustainability in many of the most influential federal ministries and the inevitable resistance against transformations in many parts of society, for example, are inherently political issues that need to be tackled in a process of democratic politics. But science can do its share in this process by facilitating much needed cooperation between different ministries and by influencing the political agenda. Most importantly, “trust in science is a fragile good”. To preserve it, scientists need to involve themselves in a transparent discussion about quality criteria for their work and about their role on the way to global sustainable societies.


summarised by J.Lundershausen &  B. Schmalzbauer, November, 2017
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