Humanity faces the daunting challenge of sustaining life on planet Earth over the next 100 years while also enhancing human well-being and reducing social inequity. These, however, are wicked problems, with many interdependent factors, and we cannot expect to stumble our way to a solution. We need evidence and data-driven approaches that fully incorporate our understanding of both earth’s biophysical processes and social systems.
To address this challenge, sustainability science has emerged in the last decade as a prominent field of research. It studies the interactions between natural and social systems, and how those interactions affect the challenges of reducing poverty and conserving the planet’s life support systems. Importantly, a recent review by the US National Academy of Sciences argued that sustainability science is a different kind of science—it is use-inspired and has embedded in it a commitment to translate knowledge into societal action.
However, embedding sustainability science into sustainability practice is hard. This is because much of the scientific knowledge is not ‘practice-ready’—knowing that ecosystems and humans interact in ways that generate unexpected outcomes doesn’t easily translate into solutions. In fact, it needs a whole new way of doing research.
1. We need to move from linear to iterative research models
First, the very framing of how we carry out research is flawed. Research today is conducted primarily in universities and research centres. The mental model of research is linear—research is done to ‘settle the science’, and then solutions are devised.
Even after investing years of research, there are sometimes more questions than answers.
But, in practice, when looking for definitive answers from researchers for a certain problem, we realise that research has no end point. Researchers (and ecologists in particular) raise awareness about the urgency of a problem. But because ecological systems are so complex, scientists hesitate to endorse specific solutions, often calling for more research. Since research on natural systems is time-consuming, research cycles last several years. However, even after investing years of research, there are sometimes more questions than answers.
In other domains like education or medicine, we routinely collect evidence on new approaches to classroom teaching or clinical practice. We learn from them and revise our approach accordingly. This so-called implementation science approach needs to be extended to solving socio-environmental problems by iteratively going back and forth between research and implementation.
2. We need a ‘living labs’ approach to research
Second, the scale at which research is done (in a lab or at the scale of a plot of land) does not match the scale at which socio-environmental change occurs. For instance, a restoration experiment conducted at a 10-metre scale may not necessarily offer insight into what might work at a 10-square-kilometre scale. We know that natural systems respond differently on larger scales—there are more ‘confounding’ variables such as differing soils, biota, and climate, and there’s feedback and tipping points. For example, deforesting a forest patch may make a difference locally, but deforesting the Amazon may permanently change the regional climate system. Moreover, it is impossible to randomly assign sites and test outcomes, and control extraneous variables at larger scales, Therefore, traditional experimental and statistical tools, which many researchers use, work poorly. At the moment we can only simulate these and guess what might happen.
The only way for us to know what is happening is to embed research in implementation programmes of a larger scale from their inception. But doing so needs research to leave the ivory tower of academia and confront the messiness of real life—uncertainty about when projects start and end, political rather than statistical reasoning dictating where programmes get implemented, and so on. To conduct research in living labs, we don’t just need new tools and methodologies, but also new institutions, alliances, and funding mechanisms.
3. We need to reimagine pilot projects as prototypes to test hypotheses
Third, once we realise that research and practice are not dichotomous, we must take research to the field and bring back lessons to our research so we can refine our understanding. We need to view research and practice as complementary.
If we view them as iterative, we will treat all pilot projects as research opportunities. Every implementation action—setting up a cooperative, building a water treatment system, investing in a restoration project—will have a specific learning goal with measurable outcomes.
The scale at which research is done does not match the scale at which socio-environmental change occurs.
When the objective of a pilot project is defined from the outset as a means to test hypotheses, whether it fails or succeeds, knowledge is generated. This is in sharp contrast to how most pilot projects are currently approached, with a focus on showcasing a novel idea that has emerged from research. If they fail or don’t work as planned, they are nonetheless propped up because failure is viewed with stigma. In fact, when we interviewed several civil society organisations as part of a ‘journey mapping’ exercise to uncover the pain points they faced in delivering solutions, they repeatedly mentioned pressure from donors and boards on ‘showcasing success stories’. This was regardless of whether or not they themselves were convinced of the success of the proposed solutions.
This is the reason that a vast majority of pilot projects are unsustainable and cannot scale. Even if scaling is not the ultimate (or desirable) goal, many projects remain on permanent life support, collapsing as soon as the project ends. Treating pilots as research projects reduces the pressure to claim success. It allows failure and course correction to be an equally acceptable outcome. By removing the stigma, it encourages sharing of experiences so that mistakes are not repeated.
4. We need to create research marketplaces
Finally, we need much more research at different locations and scales. Often the questions that scientists think are interesting and useful (and may be designed to push the frontiers of science) are quite different from those that grassroots communities and organisations want answered. Publishable science is not necessarily use-inspired. The latter may be empirical and ‘grounded’, but nonetheless crucial.
Humanity’s critical sustainability and equity problems need research-backed solutions.
Ironically, even while hundreds of grassroots organisations and communities want answers but cannot afford to pay for the research, an equal number of master’s students are willing and available for six-month periods each year to answer them. One solution to this may be the creation of a ‘research marketplace’ that brings together the supply and demand for good, grounded research in sustainability science. It will combine critical research questions posed by grassroots communities and students with the skills, capabilities, mentorship, and funding to collect and analyse data.
A comparable recent effort called fastgrants.org was launched to speed up science funding for COVID-19 research, arguing that normal science funding mechanisms, which are too slow even in ordinary times, are much too slow during the pandemic. It promised small-sized grants with low effort and a quick turnaround. There are many similar small grants programmes that aggregate funding in critical research areas. From a researcher’s perspective, these end up being a strategy game on the types of research the committee will find interesting that will also advance the researcher’s own career through high impact publication. But neither of these guarantees that the research will address the questions the community most urgently needs answered.
A research marketplace is fundamentally different. The researcher does not come up with the research questions at all; the community does. This guarantees that the research is optimised for social relevance as opposed to publishability in high impact factor journals. The role of the expert scientific committee is to judge how well the applicant’s approach will answer the question and build their skills if required. Researchers, in turn, bid for open research questions on a rolling deadline; once a suitable candidate is found, the question is closed.
Humanity’s critical sustainability and equity problems need research-backed solutions. And even though sustainability science is supposed to be ‘use-inspired’, in practice, research institutions are set up in a way that results in a lot of critical research questions not being funded or engaged with. To address this, we need to move from linear to iterative research models, adopt a ‘living labs’ approach to research, reimagine pilot projects as prototypes to test hypotheses, and create research marketplaces.
- Read this commentary on sustainability science.
- Read this article on how grant makers can change the way they think about giving to ensure research is more usable.
- Read this post to understand why we need a commitment to open science and how our approach to data and evidence needs to change to solve societal problems.
- Learn more about the science–policy–practitioner divide here.
- If you work in a research organisation or with/as a research funder, initiate a discussion within your organisation on how you can track usability of sustainability research and partner with grassroots organisations.