Conference report: Sustainability Science Forum 2021
With the first edition of the Sustainability Science Forum on 30 November 2021 at the Eventforum Bern, SCNAT's Sustainability Research Initiative brought together key players in the field of sustainability research. The event was dedicated to the question of how science can more strongly and directly support the acceleration of change towards greater sustainability. A particular focus of the lively debates was on the more effective use of existing knowledge, the development of concrete pathsways for action against the background of the interdependencies between sustainability goals, and the strengthening of collaborative research, especially on the pressing open questions identified in the white paper "Priority Topics for Swiss Sustainability Research" by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences.
Image: Anja Zurbrügg
After welcoming remarks by Marcel Tanner, President of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences, Thomas Vellacott, CEO of WWF Switzerland, introduced the overall topic. In his keynote he showed how we are at a unique point in history, given the uniquely high CO2 concentration and the rapid extinction of species. Although - and this is new - governments and the corporate world are starting to realize how much this affects us all, we are facing huge challenges in terms of implementing the politically agreed climate targets and the ambition to go far beyond that all the way to Net Zero. We are already in the midst of transformation, but not moving fast enough. It is a radical transformation that massively affects all sectors, has the dimension of the industrial revolution, but must happen three times as fast.
We need people who have the courage to challenge the rules
According to Vellacott, the transformation towards sustainability is not possible without science. Photovoltaics would not have become competitive so quickly. The work of IPCC and IPBES has led to a very strong attention to science among decision-makers worldwide. However, science itself must change, just as it did during the Industrial Revolution when, for example, the ETH was founded to equip people with newly needed skills:
"As the world around us changes at a speed we've never seen before, our academic institutions have to change at a speed we've never seen before - if they are to remain relevant."
For Vellacott, three things are central: first, there needs to be a focus on the biggest challenges. Second, the integration of perspectives from different disciplines is required, and third, transdisciplinary approaches are important to help bring about change beyond science.
Thomas Vellacott concluded his presentation by calling on those present, "We need people to work with the existing institutions, but not according to old rules. We need courageous people who question the rules and make them fit for the challenges of the 21st century." Presentation Thomas Vellacot (PDF)
The following contributions by Corina Caduff, vice rector for research at the Bern University of Applied Sciences, and Lutz Merbold, head of the division Agroecology and Environment at Agroscope, showed how scientific institutions can make themselves fit for change. Both institutions revised their strategic research priorities in 2021 on the basis of the "Priority Themes" proposed in the Academies' white paper.
The importance of strategic agenda setting and its financial support were also discussed at the subsequent panel discussion. It was devoted to the question of how we can strengthen science for change, viewed as an interplay between researchers, institutions and research funders.
Science for Change: Science and public action must go together
According to Julia Steinberger, Professor of Societal Challenges of Climate Change at the University of Lausanne, the focus of science needs to move more towards public action to help change things. Researchers should be free to work on the issues they care about and be uncomfortable about them, rather than having to follow the trends in order to make a career. According to Steinberger, however, it can be risky to fundamentally question things. Researchers are often up against powerful players, against defenders of existing systems and structures that need to change. The question is how they can address them and position themselves in relation to them. Do we know how to do such research? We need to discuss this, and set up appropriate training opportunities.
From the point of view of Renat Heuberger, member of the Innovation Council of Innosuisse and CEO of the South Pole Group, it would be important for science to be much more closely linked to people's everyday lives and made tangible. According to Stuart Lane, member of the Research Council of the Swiss National Science Foundation and Professor of Geomorphology at the University of Lausanne, we must go beyond that and rethink the relationship between science and society. He encouraged researchers to transcend this boundary – which is artificial anyway – and seek new forms of collaboration, also in order to be able to overcome the bias of research to some extent.
All three guests agreed that the idea of coming together to tackle major problems needs to be promoted more strongly. Lane stressed that this requires an adequate problem orientation: one must let the problem speak for itself, i.e. ask the tree, so to speak, how it wants to be studied. Heuberger pointed out that cooperation in larger consortia is associated with more risks and therefore requires more tolerance of failure. One must be able to allow for the unforeseen. The Innosuisse Flagship Programme, for example, is particularly flexible when it comes to meeting milestones.
Support from research funding
The evaluation of such collaborative, transdisciplinary research is still a major challenge, Lane reported. In the SNSF's Research for Development programme (R4D), new forms have emerged, such as evaluation panels in which practitioner representation. The SNSF is in the process of gradually implementing the fundamentally new way of assessing science proposed in the DORA Declaration. The outcomes of such research cannot be assessed in the normal scientific way either. The outcome orientation needs to be part of a project from the very beginning and must be carried through to implementation, Steinberger explained. She cited as an example the collective discussion of the question of how we can satisfy everyone's needs with the smallest possible consumption of resources:
"It's about reorienting research towards outcomes and then bringing in all the reflection and freedom you need in order for those outcomes to be considered in the best way possible."
Steinberger and Heuberger agreed that there is a lot of potential in the way science communicates. More capacity building is needed here in order to find a good way of dealing with disagreement within science, uncertainty of knowledge and incomplete knowledge, and to create links to people's everyday lives. According to Heuberger, it is helpful to contrast the extent of disagreement with that of (higher-level) agreement. Steinberger reported of networks that build bridges between researchers and journalists to support media coverage.
Lane also pointed to the importance of new forms of outputs that can be used to communicate results. For example, the film "La veine verte" from the R4D programme shows how transdisciplinary collaboration can be designed and be transformative.
Finally, the panellists encouraged the audience to participate in several communities in science and practice – from lab visits outside their field to trade unions or parents' councils. It is important to be able to understand each other across different fields, they said. Having only one expertise and one role is a good recipe for failure as a society in the future, Steinberger said. Collaborative settings are successful when each player knows what they are doing, what their role is and what they are contributing, Heuberger added.
"Unleashing Knowledge": making better use of existing knowledge
Three parallel sessions in the afternoon invited in-depth deliberations on how to make better use of existing knowledge, how to design transformation research, and how to take into account the interdependencies of sustainability goals in political decision-making processes.
In addition to moderator Janet Hering, Director of Eawag, three guests were invited to discuss strategies for making better use of existing knowledge. Markus Jenny, agricultural expert at the Swiss Ornithological Institute, reported on the work of the think tank "Vision Landwirtschaft", which he also chairs. The aim of this think tank is to explain important topics in agriculture to stakeholders. Anna Stünzi, President of the think tank foraus, provided insights into its political work. And BinBin Pearce from the TdLab at ETH Zurich explained how, in their transdisciplinary research, the knowledge generated is continuously and directly taken up and, to a certain extent, further processed by partners involved in the projects.
According to Jenny, it is crucial to first make sure that the different stakeholders understand that there is a problem before talking about solutions. Participants also agreed that trying new things in pilot settings is helpful, and that positive experiences are best shared by the people involved themselves. This way knowledge is also contextualised, which Pearce said helps to show relevance to target groups. It is important to talk to stakeholders and ask what knowledge gaps there are, and then try to fill those with targeted information. It is also helpful to create structures to pass on knowledge all the way to implementation. More attention should be paid to this work - also by funding corresponding efforts.
Finally, it was stressed that the various networks, think tanks and researchers concerned with the better use of knowledge should link up more closely and pursue their common concerns together. In this way, the transfer of knowledge between the various actors could be improved.
How to design research for social transformation?
The discussion in the second session dealt with the question of what role science can play in societal transformation towards more sustainability and how transformation research differs from other forms of research. The special requirements and needs of this research were also discussed. In addition, examples of proven approaches from global and local research collaborations were highlighted.
According to the introduction by moderator Fabian Käser, head of KFPE at SCNAT, transformation research should go beyond the mere description of cause-effect relationships and identify possibilities for social transformation. It must therefore be solution-oriented and be included in the dialogue with political decision-makers and society, it was argued. The td-net Toolbox for the Co-production of Knowledge presents methods that help to achieve this.
Transformation research often involves collaboration with non-academic partners. It is important to select them carefully, to put on the table and acknowledge any unequal power relations among them, and also to involve those who have not been consulted so far. These may be people with little formal education, other knowledge systems or children, as Joëlle Mastelic, president of the Energy Living Labs Association and Professor at HES-SO Valais reported. They may not be used to putting forward their ideas or concerns, and it requires a plea from researchers to give their voices the appropriate weight. According to Tatjana von Steiger, head of Global Policy Outreach, the Wyss Academy builds on long-standing partnerships and thus benefits from the trust that has already been established. Johanna Jacobi, Professor of Agroecological Transitions at ETH Zurich, took a different approach. In her R4D project, she worked with partners other than the big players, who brought new and fresh perspectives. Another important point, she said, is budget transparency. It must be fairly negotiated, agreed and made transparent who contributes which resources and who receives which benefits from a project (see also KFPE guidelines on this topic).
The problem of research funding, which cannot always be based on clear research questions, goals and milestones from the outset, was also discussed in this session. The participants suggested that such promises on outcomes could be replaced by defining common visions at the beginning of a collaboration.
Take into account interdependencies between sustainability goals
The second session addressed the question of how interdependencies between different sustainability goals can be identified, prioritized and taken into account in political decision-making processes.
Laura Ebneter and Christoph Bader from the Centre for Development and Environment at the University of Bern presented a qualitative model that helps to approach and understand the issue systemically. In their study, they examined which sub-goals of the 2030 Agenda influence many others and which are influenced by many others. In this way, they were able to show which goals build on each other, in both a positive and negative sense (angel and vicious circles). This makes clear what one has to focus on in order to achieve as much as possible. Such a systemic view helps to understand the goals in their interconnectedness.
Till Berger from the Federal Office for Spatial Development and Dominik Gross from Alliance Süd discussed with Christoph Bader and moderator Eva Lieberherr from ETH Zurich how to use this knowledge to increase policy coherence. Among other things, there was a plea for an obligation to assess the impact of regulations on the various sustainability goals. This is the only way to ensure that no decisions are taken that run counter to efforts to achieve the sustainability goals.
Do we need vision-based research funding?
A rich and diverse fishbowl discussion with a number of changing panellists finally addressed the way forward. Based on the major challenges identified during the day that need to be addressed to accelerate societal change, the second part focused on how a flagship funding program should be designed to support work on these challenges.
Challenges mentioned were insufficient networking of actors trying to make existing knowledge usable, power imbalances between cooperation partners in transformation research, but also the danger of instrumentalization of transdisciplinary research by anti-Western regimes. Furthermore, the need to develop a social contract for the future due to the urgency of sustainability transformation was emphasized. On the basis of a respective vision, it must be focused on the use of synergies:
"Synergies are the only chance we have", said Pete Messerli, Director of the Wyss Academy.
In funding programmes, it is important to address all relevant scientific disciplines from the outset and to specifically promote the provision of knowledge on how change can be brought about. This could also increase the relevance for the implementation and application of knowledge in practice. It is important to facilitate collaborations with non-profit actors, especially at universities of applied sciences, which have focused on the private sector. This would also help to broaden the concept of innovation, argued Vincent Moser from the HES-SO. Rea Pärli from ETH Zurich suggested that research funding could ask for regular reports on what worked and what did not, with a reflection on what led to success and failure. This could be a way of supporting experimenting with more open-ended results and finding a good way of dealing with failures.
As a final word, Pete Messerli repeated that research funding to support the shift towards more sustainability should be oriented towards visions rather than pre-defined research questions or anticipated outcomes. Inspired by the courageous creation of ETH Zurich at the time of the Industrial Revolution, as mentioned by Thomas Vellacott, one could consider how to create and fund a Swiss Federal Institute for Transformation.
The President of the SCNAT Initiative for Sustainability Research, Peter Edwards concluded the event with a brief summary. In addition to all the continuing activities to connect the various specialist communities within and outside science, the in-depth work on research priorities and the continuing dialogue with research funders, the intention is also to make the Sustainability Science Forum a platform for networking, collecting ideas and joint specialist exchange on current topics in the medium term.
The plenary speeches and panel discussions were live-streamed. You can watch them here.