I recently reread an important commentary/thought piece on the future of sustainability science which argues that the field needs to substantially change in order “to ensure that science is focused on facilitating sustainability outcomes” (Miller et al. 2014). In particular, these sustainability researchers believe that a stronger focus on contributing to real-world solutions is required (rather than doing descriptive-analytical research). They further argue that “we must ask: What is the appropriate role of science in contributing to action and decisionmaking for sustainability? What kind of science is useful for this purpose? What knowledge, if any, is needed to make better decisions? How can sustainability science best participate in the implementation of sustainable solutions?”
Increasingly, sustainability scientists / scholars seek to conduct transformational research. For example, the theme of the 2016 international sustainability transitions conference is “Exploring Transition Research as Transformative Science”. ‘Transformative science’ is also a rising theme in Europe (e.g. see here, here). However, we also need to critically ask questions about whether and when such research can be “transformative”. If so, how? To what extent? Under what conditions?
Such questions are also linked to related perspectives on change, innovation, adaptation processes, and long-term sustainability requirements, as well as evaluation. For instance, many adaptation scholars emphasise that adaptation is an ongoing iterative process (for an interesting example see the ways that alpine resorts are starting to adapt to worse winter seasons). Such processes of change tend to be mostly incremental but over-time can be substantial. In contrast, sustainability-oriented scholars often emphasise non-incremental change and often focus on desired rapid ‘revolutionary’ shifts.
Interestingly impact evaluation is one of the sub-themes of the 2016 transitions conference. This looks like a great opportunity to present research that critically examine the kinds of questions noted above and provides analysis of whether and why such research is ‘transformative’. It would be great to see a strong evaluation stream. (I plan to present some of my PhD research at this conference).
To my knowledge reflection on the roles of science in contributing to action and decision-making for sustainability is often quite shallow. (I’d like to be proven wrong on this – let me know if there’s any good research that I should review). STS-style research on the knowledge practices that are used and evaluative research provide important ways of addressing such gaps. Additionally, as I’m currently exploring in my PhD research, evaluation is another type of knowledge practice that can contribute to action and decision-making for sustainability (also see my paper on this).
Certainly, researchers and practitioners do frequently think about such issues. For example, consultants doing sustainability-related contract research consider whether a report is used by the client, whether recommendations are implemented and their efficacy, etc, and also what influences these outcomes. Impact related questions are a common concern and were asked at firms that I’ve worked at.
Additionally, some social science scholarship does examine the production, evaluation and use of global environmental knowledge. For instance the interesting book Global Environmental Assessments: Information and Influence critically examines the varying influence of such assessment exercises and seeks to derive practical lessons from detailed case studies.
One important gap is examination of the taken-for-granted routines in sustainability research and how these influence the impact of this research. For example, the idea that knowledge should be ‘policy relevant, yet policy neutral’ and not policy prescriptive is a common mantra which in many research communities can be termed a normative routine. (Some researchers argue, in contrast, that “in some sense being policy relevant is to be policy prescriptive” and they critique the notion of providing neutral ‘input’ to policy/decision processes). Another example is the quality criteria used by researchers and whether these focus on the right things if a core focus is achieving impact.
Another gap is examination and theorisation of the envisaged links between scientific knowledge and action. (For a partial exception see this paper). A key idea that informs my PhD research is that many sustainability-related knowledge practices can be conceptualised as social interventions which are informed by ‘if→then’ style assumptions that shape the design of these interventions – e.g. if we provide more data of ‘this’ kind, or present it in a particular manner, then the desired action will follow. To the extent that such practices are social interventions they can be evaluated like any other intervention (e.g. by examining if and when the desired changes are generated).
A related gap/issue needing further examination is the theoretical underpinning of knowledge practices used in sustainability science. For example, some common research frameworks in sustainability science are almost theory-less (see here), a problem shared with many foresight frameworks. Researchers in the sustainability transitions field also rely heavily on systems theory and complexity theory (e.g. the theory of complex adaptive systems) and the multi-level perspective on transition processes. These theoretical commitments should also be critical examined, including whether they enable research that contributes to real-world solutions or hamper it. (I see more evidence of the latter). This is not a new issue, but “theoretical lock-in” – to coin a new phrase – seems to be prevalent.
This is something I plan to reflect on further over the New Year break and will inform the dissertation that I write next year.