By Joern Fischer
The title of this blog entry is a bit all over the place, but I’m aiming for the content to be as crisp as ever.
Just a few days ago, an engaged discussion that I had with a colleague (who shall remain unnamed) led to one of life’s truly grand insights — well, perhaps to be taken with a grain of salt. To all religious and non-religious people alike, don’t be offended by this insight, because indeed, it’s just a metaphor that is neither pro- nor anti-religious. So, please, don’t interpret the following metaphor as either religious zealotry nor as anti-religious propaganda, because it’s neither.
But now, the all-important metaphor: “Jesus was a basin shaper” (Anonymous, 2013)
Here’s the explanation.
Many scientists interested in sustainability or conservation believe that it is necessary to do good science — but they also see part of their mission as somehow informing (or even influencing) policy. It has become somewhat of a mantra among “sustainability scientists” that we need to work on problems and find solutions. I, personally, strongly favour science that is solution-oriented rather than “fundamental”. But perhaps I’m wrong? Here’s why.
Policies are fickle. They come and go, and they usually address problems within the boundaries of what is deemed politically feasible. Often, this amounts to managing “fast variables”, or symptoms of sustainability problems. Favouring science that is policy-relevant thus means limiting science to questions that are relevant to current policy — it implies working on things that can be tackled rather than pondering fundamental problems (or “slow variables”) that ought to be tackled, but very likely won’t be by any policies at this point in time. Fundamental sustainability questions relate to how we live, what is a good life, and how we ought to share this planet with other creatures. These are key questions: but they are not directly policy-relevant.
In some settings, you find that nobody wants to hear your science. You may find your science policy-relevant, but policy makers may feel differently. This might be because you’re doing a bad job of communicating your science; but it could also be because the question you are asking do not match the symptoms or fast variables currently on the radar of policy makers.
To those who feel their work is not relevant enough to policy, or has failed to influence things for the better: perhaps you’re wrong. Some work is hugely influential by gradually contributing to changes in how we think about problems. Thinking about problems in new ways, shedding light on problems that previously were not considered, and infecting others with such new ideas amounts to shaping an intellectual basin of attraction. If your ideas are good, others become attracted and possibly infected, and one thing leads to another…. take resilience: it started as a specific concept but gradually turned into resilience thinking, with a whole body of scholarship attached to it. We should not (only) judge Holling’s original paper by its specific relevance to forest policy — its bigger contribution may have been that it has helped to shape an increasingly influential intellectual basin of attraction.
Many people have left legacies not because of policies that they changed but because they influenced people’s thinking.
So, should we engage with policy? Probably. But perhaps an equally important service is to contribute to the shape of intellectual basins of attraction.