Duurzaamheid in Onderzoek / Sustainability in Research

September 23, 2019 0 By Ronny Jaskolski

Sustainability issues or so-called wicked problems demand a new approach in research. Changes in the world of research are urgently needed. This is the debate we would like to trigger today. Every researcher and every higher education institution can shape that change, and profit from it. I think the kind of problems that demand a different approach are so-called wicked problems. Wicked problems are hard to structure, and inherently contain a lot of uncertainty. We don’t have data, we don’t know what the problem really looks like, we cannot measure it… And on top of that, these are problems that different people will judge differently. Different value systems can collide over them. That makes a problem a wicked problem. There is no data and there is no agreement on the kind of solution we need. This means that you will need a new approach in your research. You cannot start from what you have done before because it’s a new problem, the data aren’t there, and people don’t agree on how to solve it. So you have to question yourself, you have to talk to others. A typical wicked problem is climate change. There is a lot of uncertainty on how the climate will evolve. There are some probabilities and scenarios of climate change. How bad will it be in different parts of the world? It will probably be less severe in our region than in the South. But even that we don’t know for sure. There is a lot of uncertainty. On top of that, we share different values. So what is more important: To have a stable climate, because it is handy for agriculture and human development? Or should we proclaim the right to development of the South, say India and China, to trump the protection of the climate? There is no singular answer to it, but there are different ethics that can collide. And I think that as a
scientist you really have to say: There are several possible scenarios, with
advantages to both. To envision such scenarios you have to step outside your own discipline. To step outside your own discipline. What does that mean? Why is it so important? Why is it still so rare? It is not an easy thing to do because academic research in Belgium and abroad is based on a very narrow idea of a discipline. Yet all major scientific breakthroughs
were reached by a leap in the dark. It is in fact a true scientific
reflex to question your earlier theories and methods. You have to be open to experiment,
to things that may be disruptive to your worldview. That is the reflex of sustainability in research. “I am open to it. When a new type of problem arrives I must find new ways of dealing with it.” Such disruption is a positive thing. Disruption to reach a new approach
within a new framework. Researching sustainability issues means making choices. How should we frame sustainability issues? It is very important that the combination of both social and ecological concerns is considered. Social and ecological projects are important, but it is only sustainability
if both are combined. One should work with the possible tension between them. We should make a distinction between weak and strong interpretations of sustainability. The classic, weak interpretation is the Triple P model: people, planet, profit. It balances social,
economic and ecological aspects. In practice you see huge trade-offs in which economic aspects outweigh the other. So I advocate for strong sustainability,
where the economy is also important but it is at the service of a socially just society, which also takes into account the ecological limits, the carrying capacity of the Earth. To reach strong sustainability
there is a clear need for other structures, other cultures, other incentives. We need to have this debate. What are the bottlenecks and opportunities in the current approach and organization of research? How can research policy and the individual researcher contribute? Firstly, the societal relevance of research is often put in parentheses, we often do research for the sake of research. We must publish A1 articles, international
top publications. That’s a problem. Secondly, there is too little research into complex issues. Researchers mainly pick obvious problems, where the
facts are known. So I advocate for more transdisciplinarity. Discussion should take place between different scientists, from different disciplines, on how to define problems, how to think about solutions. It is transdisciplinary when non-academic knowledge
is involved in these complex issues. There is lot of normative discussion on these issues, so it is interesting to involve those people. There is somehow this idea that research relevant to society cannot be of top scientific level. This is definitely not the case. I think that’s very clear and should be pointed out. I think academic freedom is very important but it can be perfectly combined with engaged knowledge. Societal relevance, integrating non-academic knowledge, engaged knowledge, in combination with excellent research as a guide for sustainability in research. How to achieve this in practice? How to create support for it within higher education? To gain internal support we have to include these principles in the training, in the professional development of those who teach at our college. Such that we are state of the art in our field but also more and more involve our students. We make our researchers
step out of their comfort zone. We organize collaboration between different disciplines. In the first couple of months, it’s not easy to find a common language. Research projects at our college last at least three years, and that’s really needed. We let people from real estate collaborate with orthopedagogues, SME management, food technologists, … And we may also engage the Arts. Now the language of an engineer and an artist, both working on textile as their domain, is not the same. It is a learning process. We have now been at it for several years and things have improved. It is not easy. But the results
are very interesting. In my dream scenario, specifically
for research within a college, there is a bit of structural support for research from the government. This too is sustainability. It is not
just about research for sustainability but also sustainability of research. You want to keep and develop certain expertise. Next to that, I would adopt sustainability criteria when selecting research proposals. A researcher gave me an example. Should
we focus on the retrieval of dyes from wastewater, or should we colour our textiles with something that does not pollute? I thought that was great, because four years ago nobody would have had that reflex. We would like to evolve, together with our researchers, and be more aware of the research subjects themselves, to have a bigger societal impact.
That’s not going to be easy. A researcher is primarily a
global citizen. He therefore has the obligation towards society to reflect on the contribution of his research. Doctoral schools can be important. Current and future researchers should be trained to have the competencies to deal with sustainability issues. Be it in their own discipline or as a sustainability scientist, researchers should have such competencies. It is in fact our duty to make sure they have this background, because they will face sustainability issues, now and in the future. Sustainability is not an add-on. We have the duty to learn our doctoral, master and bachelor students the skills to deal with future challenges In addition, it is obviously the job of
the other societal stakeholders, governments, companies, citizens to also play their part in sustainable development. They should all get started with the knowledge being provided by scientists. Higher education must provide a space for researchers and scientists to do research which can contribute to sustainable development. An enabling environment for sustainability should be created. A reformed research policy offers enormous opportunities to address wicked problems. This reform is urgent. There is a consensus to tackle the urgency of sustainability issues through dialogue with people from both inside academia, from different disciplines, and outside the academic world. This is the only way to attain strong sustainability. Strong sustainability means both ecological aspects and social justice are taken into account. They go hand in hand. Of course there will be trade-offs. But you cannot call it sustainability if you don’t factor in both aspects. It’s exactly through this dialogue that you will get to creative solutions to attain sustainability. The switch towards sustainability is being made right now. A few careful steps have been taken. It’s important for colleges and universities to be ready for the opportunities ahead. That’s why it’s important that students, future researchers, have the appropriate skills to deal with sustainability issues. And that means being open to other principles, other disciplines, and other actors in society. Ecocampus is a program of the Environment, Nature and Energy Department of the Flemish Government. Together with the universities and colleges she wants to engage in the debate on how to deal with wicked problems. What this might mean for the research community, you can read on the website of Ecocampus in the advisory paper Sustainability in Research.