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Enabling Effective Problem-oriented Research for Sustainable Development

Christoph Kueffer, Institute of Integrative Biology, ETH Zurich
Evelyn Underwood, Alliance for Global Sustainability, ETH Zurich
Gertrude Hirsch Hadorn, Institute for Environmental Decisions, ETH Zurich
Rolf Holderegger, Institute of Integrative Biology, ETH Zurich; WSL Swiss Federal Research Institute
Michael Lehning, WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research; École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)
Christian Pohl, Institute for Environmental Decisions, ETH Zurich
Mario Schirmer, Eawag
René Schwarzenbach, Competence Center Environment and Sustainability (CCES), ETH Zurich
Michael Stauffacher, Institute for Environmental Decisions, ETH Zurich
Gabriela Wuelser, Institute for Environmental Decisions, ETH Zurich
Peter Edwards, Institute of Integrative Biology, ETH Zurich; Alliance for Global Sustainability, ETH Zurich


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Environmental problems caused by human activities are increasing; biodiversity is disappearing at an unprecedented rate, soils are being irreversibly damaged, freshwater is increasingly in short supply, and the climate is changing. To reverse or even to reduce these trends will require a radical transformation in the relationship between humans and the natural environment. Just how this can be achieved within, at most, a few decades is unknown, but it is clear that academia must play a crucial role. Many believe, however, that academic institutions need to become more effective in helping societies move toward sustainability. We first synthesize current thinking about this crisis of research effectiveness. We argue that those involved in producing knowledge to solve societal problems face three particular challenges: the complexity of real-world sustainability problems, maintaining impartiality when expert knowledge is used in decision making, and ensuring the salience of the scientific knowledge for decision makers. We discuss three strategies to meet these challenges: conducting research in interdisciplinary teams, forming research partnerships with actors and experts from outside academia, and framing research questions with the aim of solving specific problems (problem orientation). However, we argue that implementing these strategies within academia will require both cultural and institutional change. We then use concepts from transition management to suggest how academic institutions can make the necessary changes. At the level of system optimization, we call for: quality criteria, career incentives, and funding schemes that reward not only disciplinary excellence but also achievements in inter-/transdisciplinary work; professional services and training through specialized centers that facilitate problem-oriented research and reciprocal knowledge exchange with society; and the integration of sustainability and inter-/transdisciplinary research practices into all teaching curricula. At the level of system innovation, we propose radical changes in institutional structures, research and career incentives, teaching programs, and research partnerships. We see much value in a view of change that emphasizes the complementarity of system innovation and system optimization. The goal must be a process of change that preserves the traditional strengths of academic research, with its emphasis on disciplinary excellence and scientific rigor, while ensuring that institutional environments and the skills, worldviews, and experiences of the involved actors adapt to the rapidly changing needs of society.

Key words

interdisciplinarity; knowing-doing gap; outreach; participation; post-normal science; problem-oriented research; research partnership; research policy; science-policy nexus; social learning; transdisciplinarity; transition management

Copyright © 2012 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087