On the road to a more sustainable science

On the road to a more sustainable science

Science is often seen as something that operates in isolation, used and trusted for producing knowledge, which is then passed on to others – the ones that will eventually make decisions – with limited continued interactions. The authors of Enhancing Science Impact: Bridging Research, Policy and Practice for Sustainability suggest that if we are to do ‘good science’ and be one step closer to solving complex sustainability issues, this needs to change.

Image: CSIRO Publishing

This is especially true because sustainability problems are unique; they involve an immense diversity of issues, such as the social, economic, political, as well as biophysical, scientific or technical. Scientists lose their credibility and their trust when trying to be the ‘final arbiter of reality or truth’, where ‘goals are controversial and there is substantial uncertainty about the effectiveness of policy options for achieving them’, which is often the case in problems linked with sustainability. Peat Leith and Marcus Haward, from the University of Tasmania, Kevin O’Toole from Deakin University, and Brian Coffey from RMIT explore ways to address such an important challenge.

What is the solution?

Broadly, the authors make the case that science needs to better interact with society in mutual ways, using a central theme of the book – ‘boundary work’. Boundaries, unlike borders that are well-defined, are porous, open to negotiation and can be seen as ‘gradual shifts between one zone and another’. Less traditional or static, and more inclusive approaches, need to be developed to link science with citizens and other stakeholders. The authors point out that exemplary researchers have managed to work efficiently at the boundaries between science, society and decision-making, but often by relying on tacit knowledge and intuition resulting from trial and error. According to the authors, the social and institutional infrastructures that connect all of these elements need to be critically examined and we need to make a more deliberate effort in establishing boundary work.

So, how does it work?

The authors argue that there are better ways than those currently in place for ‘thinking about knowledge production that better reflect what scientists, publics and decision makers actually do to achieve outcomes’.

Solving sustainability issues should start with stakeholder analysis. Such analysis should not just be a box-ticking exercise, as it often is, to come up with a list of stakeholders. Instead, what the people involved actually have at stake – their value interests or concerns regarding the issue – needs to be carefully considered. According to the authors, such reflection is more efficient when design includes an analysis of how stakeholders talk about or frame the problems. This is helpful to avoid the common pitfalls of oversimplifying problems or not ‘seeing the forest for the trees’, and to ensure that researchers’ biases do not get in the way.

Science needs to include more participatory processes. Image: Ralf Rebmann (Photographer) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Problem-structuring involves classifying problems based on the degree of agreement and disagreement on values, stakes, and goals, and the amount of certainty around the ways to achieve these goals. As illustrated by this text, at one extreme problems such as improving crop yield with the help of soil scientists can be well-structured with relatively straightforward ways to fix the issue, agreed upon by most scientists. At the other extreme, climate change is an unstructured problem, generating limited agreement about goals and how to reach them.

The case studies described in Chapter Five illustrate the concepts mentioned above and include examples of sustainability issues in Australia and the United States, such as stream restoration, marine protected area, climate change adaptations for natural resource management, and estuary management. The authors highlight reasons for success or failure in similarly-structured problems linked with marine protected area planning that were addressed in different ways. I found these examples particularly valuable to put somewhat abstract concepts in context and understand how to go about designing projects and programs to address sustainability issues.

Finally, the authors outline five ‘boundary design elements’ that need to be taken into account in order to adequately design programs and projects addressing sustainability issues. These elements ‘link research with society, policy and practice, and can function as an integration of interventions that, when designed well, work together to embed science in the sustainability governance context.’ The focus should include objects to get the conversation going (maps, reports, etc.), actors to make sure the program managers are qualified for the job, relationships to create trust amongst individuals, networks to consider broader social networks to ensure longevity, and organisation to give a structure to the other elements. These elements will take different forms for problems with different structures, and the authors propose various fit-for-purpose designs to improve the way science is used in decision-making.

The authors describe the management of fisheries and marine protected area planning in the context of approaches that have resulted in different results. Image: Pixabay

Is it easy?

The authors warn the reader: there is no one-size-fits-all solution and ‘there simply is no right policy approach, no ideal way to embed science in governance’. Rather, the challenges associated with reaching sustainability are all context-related and will require different approaches. Therefore, the book does not provide a ‘recipe for success’, for ‘nothing is guaranteed to ensure that robust science will gain traction, and meaningfully contribute to management or ongoing problems, or to solutions to temporary ones’. Instead, the book aims to provide food for thought on what elements need to be considered to improve the efficiency of science projects and programs in different contexts.

Who is this book for?

The authors aim to inspire ‘people who design and undertake scientific programs and projects especially within governments and research organisations’ to find better and new ways to embed science into the communities it attempts to serve. As an early career researcher, I was curious and excited to find out how this book could make me a better scientist. Although I am not directly involved with sustainability issues, it provided me with insights into how I could help solve such challenges in the future and how I should get involved. More importantly, it led me to reflect upon the values and roles of science within a broad context, and to rethink my own role and responsibilities as a scientist. As such, this book will be of interest to anyone concerned with science and its role within society, including scientists, managers, policy-makers and, more broadly, curious citizens.

Purchase your copy of Enhancing Science Impact from CSIRO Publishing.

Banner image courtesy of Pixabay.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.