A new academic paper reveals key lessons on how to help sustainability research change the world for the better.
A new paper published in PLOS One reveals key lessons on how to help sustainability research change the world for the better … and how to do this more effectively than ever before.
Baltic Eye Project at Stockholm University was created to support “evidence-informed decision-making” in regards to the sustainable management of the Baltic Sea. The project includes scientists, communicators, journalists and policy analysts. This diversity lies at the heart of its success. The four-year-old project has provided important insights and had an impact on policies and practices connected to the Baltic Sea, including dealing with nutrient leakage and eutrophication and improving marine protection.
Based on the study of this project, a team of researchers led by Albert Norström from Stockholm Resilience Center identified seven thematic areas that can increase the impact of environmental science on policy and practice.
First of all, good organization structure forms the basis. Among other aspects, this includes effective leaders, clear goals and responsive reward systems. Researchers particularly need better success indicators: those that would consider not only how much the article was cited by scholars but also the wider societal impact and stakeholder engagement it stimulated. This would motivate researchers and teams to take a different perspective on developing outreach strategies for their research and ultimately become better in reaching outside the scientific community.
Second, diversity can improve research outreach, which means that the best teams are not always those with the best researchers, but also with the people that have rich and diverse networks and are good at communicating research findings and bringing them into the policy arena. Next comes long-term orientation. Seeking for funding for over five-year periods is a must, since this is a timeframe over which the real impact of some research usually starts to take effect. This makes expectations closer to reality and research more probable to generate real-life outcomes.
Another important lesson is that effective outreach requires multiple channels of engagement. While every article might have a unique strategy to effectively reach the desired audience, publicly available policy briefs with highlighted recommendations, inviting website and social-media profile are essential. Experimental teams also need space to experiment with new settings; thus, besides intense work towards the common goal, people should have time and opportunities to explore what matters to them, without the fear of failure, which brings fresh insights and new perspectives into the team.
The sixth most important element is active engagement with “hot topics,” which greatly increases publicity. It’s important to act and express opinion on sustainability issues that are at the forefront of public and political concerns, particularly if the team has something to say on the issue and wants to build its reputation over the longer term.
Finally, staff relations with relevant stakeholders are the most important asset. Policy analysts play crucial roles in this regard, helping to understand policy processes across scales, needs of policy makers and channels to influence them: “It’s about knowing, for example, when in a political process it’s best to provide knowledge, to whom and how,” stresses Marie Löf, who is one of the initial team members. The ultimate goal is to build stronger networks between scientists and policymakers, and to develop this capacity over time within the team as much as possible.
Building such an organization is not easy and might have its drawbacks. For instance, one team member revealed concerns about his development as a scientist: “I am giving up my academic career to work here, because I am not going to publish as much, and I am not going to be a professor.” Thus, there is a price to pay in such experimentation. Team members may well be aware of this as another member of the group said: “We are building something new…we don’t have to adjust to an old hierarchical culture…we need to find [new] ways to integrate this idea into the old university culture.”
Löf notes that every lesson is unique to its context and might not work for everyone. Meanwhile, she is positive about sharing experiences: “We hope that our results also can provide valuable information to other organisations and institutions that want to do something similar. Especially since organisations of this kind are rarely evaluated.”
The project is currently in progress with ambitious goals and lots of enthusiasm. And while not every attempt of this kind might turn out to be an impressive success, such experimental settings could provide a blueprint for how effective sustainability science of the future should look as we seek to create a future we want.