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What roles do scientists take on?

Scientists assume different roles in sustainability transformations. In the following, we discuss why it’s important that scientists think about these different roles. In addition, we illustrate how the roles can be considered and discussed with the help of concrete research projects and a guide for reflecting on roles.

Roles of scientists
Roles of scientists

Why discuss and reflect on roles?

Research projects on transformation processes convey different understandings of the roles of scientists. For example, some exponents of transformation research see their task as analytically and descriptively examining change from an objective distance, whereas exponents of transformative research often view themselves as part of the actual transformation process – not only examining societal change, but also helping to foster it.

Accordingly, scientists contribute to transformation processes in different ways: In addition to developing basic knowledge, they may be involved in guiding processes, providing evidenced-based policy advice, shaping new narratives or paradigms, or conceptualizing and moderating multi-stakeholder processes. These contributions vary not only in the way that knowledge is created and presented, but also in the way that scientists interact with other societal actors. The various roles may differ somewhat from traditional understandings of what scientists do, thus requiring clarification between researchers themselves or between researchers and societal actors. Accordingly, it is important to be familiar with the spectrum of possible roles, to discuss them, and to create clarity. This increases the legitimacy of different roles and enables researchers to consciously assume them.

Role diversity strengthens the quality and societal impact of science

Diverse scientific roles also enable the exploration of different questions and the incorporation of knowledge from a variety of societal actors. This leads to a broader and richer body of knowledge that contributes to both academic debates and societal transformations. In this way, greater diversity of roles can enhance the quality and societal impact of science.

generic research questions
generic research questions

Clarity of roles improves collaboration

Research on transformation processes is frequently carried out in collaboration with other societal actors, including so-called changemakers. It is important to clarify what expectations these changemakers have of science and the extent to which the researchers are prepared to support them. It can also be helpful to clarify the diverse and changing roles within the inter- and transdisciplinary research team itself. This involves discussing the division of tasks and figuring out who assumes what role and when. Clarity of roles makes it possible to work effectively and efficiently.

What do changemakers have to say?

Based on six research projects, we describe what changemakers expect from scientists in sustainability transformations.

The examples show that changemakers appreciate the different contributions made by scientists; they find them useful for their work supporting social transformation. Depending on the context, on the kind of transformation aimed at, on the state of knowledge, on networks and resources, changemakers need different things: either insights from basic science, communication of academic knowledge adapted to different target groups, moderators, evaluators, companions, catalyzers, or access to other resources such as contacts, funding, infrastructure, etc.

How can I reflect on roles?

Our guide to reflection enables familiarization with the spectrum of roles, understanding their individual importance, and communicating them successfully. The case studies from research projects listed below help to illustrate the roles assumed by scientists in sustainability transformations. In addition, role typologies enhance the vocabulary available for use in discussions and make it easier to assume a clear position. The guide also offers questions for reflection tailored to different target groups and instructions for designing workshops.

-> The Guide to reflection will soon be available here for downloading. email:

Changemakers are stakeholders who initiate, drive, or promote transformation processes

For example, changemakers can be innovative municipal authorities and other state actors, civil society representatives such as social organizations or neighbourhood associations, pioneering businesspeople and other transformative economic actors, etc.