A new ‘DNA’ for global sustainability and its implications for research

Written by  Walter van Opzeeland

It was at the start of the new millennium with increasing global environmental challenges, such as climate change, that scientists realized that human behaviour has a major influence on the earth and that there are boundaries to what the planet can handle. They even coined a new term for it: “The anthropocene’ to mark the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the planet’s ecosystems.

“This has led to an understanding of a profoundly interconnected and interdependent earth system and a realization that existing international governance is not dealing quickly enough with current global challenges,” said Lidia Brito, Director of the Science Policy and Capacity Building division of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO. She made her remarks at the ITTO/AFF Forest Policy day held at the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) on 28 June 2012. “This insight has resulted,” Brito, the former Science Minister of Mozambique, says “in a new perception of responsibility for global sustainability and planetary stewardship.”

The urgency is undeniable according to Brito: “The continued functioning of the Earth system is at risk: threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources and a potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale are real.” What role could science play to solve this problem? “Rapid scientific and technological progress can provide potential solutions,” the UNESCO science director says “but social transformation is required as well. We need new approaches to research, and to the interface between science and decision-makers in policy and business.”

With this in mind Brito recommends: a new DNA for global sustainability with ‘a triple helix’ of environmental, economic and social factors. “Whatever we do, we always need to connect these three strands,” she says. In her view, this model that aims to balance various societal needs not only requires unified goals and targets on global sustainability, but also new mechanisms for interactive dialogue between stakeholders and a more integrated, solutions-oriented research approach.

The stakes are high, she points out, “The challenge of our age is how to safeguard earth’s natural processes to ensure the well-being of civilization. Global sustainability must become a foundation of society. Green economies are not enough, we need green societies. Research has a key role to play but needs re-modelling, and better engagement with policy and business, to provide global sustainability solutions.”

Blogging for impact

Best ways to shape this engagement between scientists and policymakers to create impact was the topic of a presentation by Robert Nasi, Director of CRP6, CGIAR’s Research Programme on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry. Nasi, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) says that policy knowledge generated by scientists is not effective if it is not being communicated, as policy-makers generally do not actively search out information about issues they have to make decisions on. So how can research still lead to impact?

Nasi presents an impact pathway model that starts with inputs, like research, that leads to outputs, such as publications. In turn these result, for example, in better-managed forests (outcomes) and reduced deforestation and degradation (impacts). Although this model sounds nice in theory, he points out that the process usually takes place in a less structured way. This is represented by the Learning Selection Change Model that sees impact as the result of a process of ‘natural selection’ of the best ideas. However, Nasi notes that despite these models, in reality it remains difficult to determine the impact of research: If you develop a new variety of rice, you can measure its success by the number of farmers who adopt it. But if you develop a new forest policy, how do you know that the resulting change is based on your policy recommendations? To get more clarity on this, he suggests including impact evaluation as an integral part of project design.

Still scientists can do more to foster adoption of good research-based practices through outreach, according to the CIFOR scientist. He lists what he sees as some of the most effective methods, among others, interactive educational meetings, repeated reminders (manual or computerised) and social media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook and websites). Although these best practices for dissemination and promoting effective diffusion are well known, research institutions according to Nasi seldom implement them. He therefore urges that science institutions must reward success in uptake—not just count publications. And these are not mutually exclusive; he concludes, “If you blog about your research, it not only makes the world aware of your findings, the number of citations of your research paper generally increases as well.”


Read other stories from ITTO/AFF Forest Policy day.


Walter van Opzeeland

Walter is an independent communications consultant with almost ten years experience in writing about agricultural research for development in Africa. He worked as a global communications officer for the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) from 2003 to 2006. For the past five years he he has been working as a freelance communications and project management consultant for various international organizations and NGOs in East-Africa. Walter has a Masters in Industrial Engineering & Management and he did a postgraduate course in Journalism, both in the Netherlands.


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