The “SCNAT knowledge” web portal provides guidance. The Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) and its network report the state of knowledge, based on sound scientific findings and in regards to Switzerland – for the attention of politics, administration, business, science and practice.more

Image: Tobias Günther, SNSF Scientific Image Competitionmore

Contributions of science to sustainability transformations

How can research contribute to societal transformations in the direction of sustainability?

Transformations can only succeed if many stakeholders work together towards greater sustainability. Transformative researchers often view themselves as guides or facilitators. They work on a diverse range of outputs that impart transformation knowledge. They experiment with innovative methods that enable the participation of different stakeholders. They also consider necessary changes in their own practices and in the structures of academia in order to enable more sustainable research, teaching, and living.

The following comments are not exhaustive. They are mainly based on a snowball survey circulated in the first quarter of 2022 within the network of the Academies, starting with SCNAT. In 2023, we aim to address, among other things, the question of how scientific contributions are perceived by different stakeholders in society.

Methodological diversity and development

Researchers emphasize working with research approaches and methods that focus on societal engagement, including:

  • Real labs
  • Living labs
  • Participatory research
  • Action research
  • Transdisciplinary methods, including reflexive workshops

In dialogue with others, they seek to help shape transformations by:

  • Prompting changes in existing perspectives
  • Reframing problems to elicit different questions
  • Making unheard voices heard
  • Transferring case-specific ideas and knowledge to other regions (“cross-pollination between research regions”)
  • Strengthening self-organized groups
  • Sparking public discourse and deliberation
  • Enabling collaborative and transformative learning.

Diverse outputs

In addition to journal articles, researchers work on a variety of outputs – usually in collaboration with expert practitioners – in an effort to disseminate transformation knowledge.

  • Policy briefs
  • Training programmes
  • Guides
  • Websites
  • Apps
  • Videos
  • Networks
  • Alternative narratives, paradigms
  • Success stories

Reflecting on one’s own practices and linking research and teaching

Researchers often view themselves as part of sustainability transformations, review their own practices vis-à-vis sustainability, and engage in corresponding discussions with students. Against this backdrop, student feedback on ongoing research is also considered part of efforts to reflect on and refine concepts and approaches.

“Transformation of science”

Finally, researchers consider how universities and research funding should be designed so that science itself can enhance its impact on societal transformations towards greater sustainability.

Abbildung 2: Drei Arten von Wissen für eine nachhaltige Entwicklung: System-, Ziel- und Transformationswissen. (ProClim Flash 72)
Image: ProClim (1997), angepasst 2020 durch Hannah Ambühl, ProClim/SCNAT

Systems knowledge refers to analytical and descriptive knowledge about the actual state of the system or problem.

With target knowledge we describe knowledge about desired future developments of the system or problem.

Transformation knowledge refers the knowledge about how we can move from the actual state to the more desirable state.

The Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) calls, among other things, for funding applications not to be assessed (solely) on the basis of impact factors, but rather to consider the research output in its entirety (incl. scientific outreach, conference contributions, collaboration with stakeholders).

The Better Science Initiative promotes a scientific culture characterized by fairness, respect, diversity, and holistic assessment. Among other things, it articulates ten calls to action for science culture.

Reviewing and discussing the different roles of scientists in sustainability transformations