Sustainability or societal relevance?

By Tibor Hartel

This post is a response to the previous post on the research implementation gap.

A number of conservation scientists have identified a ‘gap’ between conservation research and implementation: while the scientific conservation knowledge is quickly accumulating, biological diversity seems to go down; previously heterogeneous and aesthetically pleasant landscapes become homogenous, infinitely boring and dead – thanks to Homo sapiens.

At the scale of Europe, this phenomenon is sharply extending from the ‘west’ (i.e. generally more impacted systems) to the ‘east’ (generally less impacted, more ‘ecologically intact’ systems). In a slightly exaggerated way: if an extra-terrestrial organism were to start researching the behaviour, demographics and economy of Homo sapiens s/he would possibly wouldn’t even realize that conservation science exists at all in Europe. If an extra-terrestrial ethnographer or anthropologist were to join the research team, she/he would probably realize after a while that Homo sapiensproduces cinemas, kindergartens, discotheque and indeed universities as well… and somewhere they do something they call “conservation science”.

If these extra-terrestrial had to somehow rank the importance of various cultural products made by humans, the importance of conservation science would be somewhere in line (or more probably below) the arts, football and other sports.

Indeed, we should admit that something is not working in the line of conservation science and its application in the real world. Scientists suggested a number of recommendations to research institutions and individual researchers to ‘control’ and solve this apparent conflict situation.

Below I will pick up one such recommendation from Knight et al. (2008) and will try to build some questions around this.

‘Bridging the research-implementation gap requires that we as a scientific community acknowledge and agree we generally are not conducting research of societal relevance and move beyond simply noting the existence of the research-implementation gap to implementing tangible changes to correct it.’

Further they point out that:

‘Researchers should therefore formulate problems collaboratively with stakeholders so as to comprehensively understand implementation opportunities and constraints and design useful, user friendly assessments’.

Both recommendations roughly converge toward the need for participatory exercises to identify common problems: to be of ‘societal relevance’ one needs to collaborate with stakeholders. It is good practice and equitable to involve a variety of different stakeholders to account for different realities.

Here I would like to point out a potentially dangerous trap. Namely, if these participatory meetings and workshops are not conducted and framed under the normative goal of sustainable development, they may fail and push the results of such workshops towards unsustainable outcomes.

One of the principles of participatory approaches is to account for different realities and ‘putting the first last’. And the question comes: ‘whose reality counts’? (see Robert Chambers exciting book about this, e.g. here for a preview)

If we ‘put’ sustainability as a normative goal for such exercises which eventually will be translated into policies and decisions – then we potentially undermine a basic principle of participation. Since sustainability is not part of the reality of everybody (various groups of stakeholders), or even if it is, not in equal importance, pushing it to a single normative goal might be dictatorial and not desirable. In a previous entry, I discussed the importance of perception about life in decision making and establishing trajectory of societies. To put it simply: if you are hungry, this means you will have different perception about life, will have different priorities (e.g. to feed your children…) and attitude toward sustainability – and you will therefore favour different types of policy and decisions.

And this is where the ‘research of societal relevance’ and ‘collaboration with stakeholders’ represents a potentially dangerous trap that needs to be managed.

How to tackle this problem?

Should we push sustainability as normative goal and then violate some basic assumption of participation and decision (e.g. ‘democracy’ or equity)?

Or in our desire to be solution-oriented and of societal relevance, should we go in the hand of ‘stakeholders’ and skew our research? (e.g. if I as conservation scientist show that fish negatively affect amphibians but actually the result is not of societal relevance – as it is in Romania for example – should I stop such kind of research?)

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One thought on “Sustainability or societal relevance?

  1. Pingback: The most popular posts in this blog | Ideas for Sustainability

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