Some transformations to harness basic sciences for sustainable development may be controversial. What are the main points to be discussed?
What the report The Future is Now says about necessary transformations in order that sustainability science can be developped should also be a topic of discussion among scientists. Especially, the way science is organized has been mainly set up by basic sciences practices.
Even if the way of doing basic sciences has evolved during the latest decades, some habits are strongly rooted, and it won’t be easy to change. Encouraging the engagement of scientists into science-society interaction, may for instance be seen as contradictory with scientific excellence.
For sustainability science to realize its potential there needs to be significant adjustments to universities and other research and training institutions. Individual researchers and research initiatives in relevant fields should become part of larger collective research projects and holistic programmes. Long-term research partnerships can identify socially relevant research questions, generate meaningful insights, and bridge the gap between knowledge and action. Researchers often engage in new, experimental platforms and processes at the science-society-policy interface, including those initiated by wider social movements. The current science-policy environment frequently discourages that kind of engagement.
Changing evaluation criteria
The strategy that should be followed is also an important topic for discussion. After all, should sustainability science take a path to become a “normal” field of science. Especially, should academic careers be built on numbers of publications and of citations of these publications? And how could scientists’ contribution to societal transformations be fairly evaluated and compared?
A strong input of scientometrics and, more generally, of social sciences, will be needed here. And it must be taken seriously by scientists from all fields, so that they can together elaborate scientifically informed policies.
When considering proposals for funding, reviewers frequently apply specialized disciplinary criteria rather than considering the integrated whole. The field is still relatively young, so sustainability science as a discipline lacks recognition, and its researchers have yet to establish powerful groups of peers or journals that are more well recognized. That has consequences, since academic careers are still typically built on numbers of publications and citations in high-impact, peer-reviewed journals rather than on researchers’ contributions to societal transformation.
Accelerate the evolution
Lastly, the authors seem to adopt Max Planck’s statement that “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Here too, some social sciences input could help to discuss the needed changes, and how to accelerate them (without waiting for the death of older generations!).
There are also concerns about scientists’ capacity and skills. Established academics may not be empowered to design and implement collaborative research efforts and may lack the required competences, skills, time and other resources. Socially engaged researchers can thus find it difficult to combine an academic career with engagement at the science-society interface.
To be continued.