Being policy-relevant vs. asking uncomfortable questions

By Joern Fischer

Many scientists working on sustainability issues are in this business because they are concerned about the state of the world. It seems self-evidently reasonable that, therefore, we ought to try to use our science to improve the state of things.

Most scientists, when they think of being relevant, or changing the state of the world for the better, automatically think of informing or influencing policy. This can be a very useful way to change things for the better. For example, new protected areas have been declared on the basis of scientific input to policy; and restoration activities in degraded landscapes have been improved by scientific input delivered to government and non-government organisations. Seeking to inform policy therefore can be a useful activity for scientists trying to improve the world.

When looking at my own work, some of it has been policy-relevant, but some has not – but was nevertheless motivated by a desire to improve the state of the world. Much of that work falls in the category of what may be called “asking uncomfortable questions”. For example, my analyses with colleagues from the social sciences and humanities have highlighted that many of the current sustainability problems require all of us to reflect on the value and belief systems underpinning the patterns of un-sustainability that we observe. Such calls to “halt and reflect” are not policy-relevant in a direct sense. When talking about such issues, I have therefore sometimes been asked: “What’s the point of all this? How is complaining about value and belief systems going to change anything?”

My response is that, in its own right, complaining of course does not do anything. However, as a scholarly community, what we talk and write about shapes or influences scientific and broader societal discourses. For example, a current discourse that many ecologists feed into is centred around the idea of environmentally benign agricultural production. Especially in a food security context, it would be possible for ecologists to feed less energy into this discourse, and instead think more about the intersection of biodiversity conservation with education (see my presentation in the previous blog post). Or – equally possible in principle – ecologists could take a systems perspective, and see whether systems are actually designed to meet objectives such as biodiversity conservation or sustainable development. Many systems were not designed for these purposes, and so we should not be surprised if they do not deliver outcomes that they were never designed to deliver in the first place. If scholars were to routinely point out inconsistencies between what our systems were originally designed to do and what may be a modern set of societal goals (e.g. sustainable development), this would create a different discourse from what we see today. In stylised terms, it is thus feasible that sustainability scholars help “create” (or strengthen) a discourse around societal goals and values, rather than continue to feed into discourses that may well amount to re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

These two ways of engaging with the world – being policy-relevant versus asking uncomfortable questions – can and should go hand in hand. Of course it makes sense to work within existing structures and paradigms to improve sustainability outcomes wherever possible. But ultimately, unless we also challenge those structures and paradigms to keep up with modern (and long-term viable) societal goals, we may win many small fights but ultimately lose the overall battle.

From my perspective, it would be helpful if a larger proportion of scholars working on sustainable development, in a larger proportion of their work, highlighted the underyling problems of our sustainability crisis and the need to address those. This would alter dominant discourses, thereby creating momentum for more fundamental societal changes which very likely, ultimately will be required. Building momentum in this way means engaging with society at large, and not singling out policy makers as the single most important “end users” of scholarly work. Many societal actors play important roles in setting the overall direction the world is heading, including scientists and “ordinary” citizens – and if it is the overall direction we are worried about, it is not just policy makers that we need to talk to.

In short: being policy-relevant is useful, but as an end goal for a sustainability science community, it is not enough.

7 thoughts on “Being policy-relevant vs. asking uncomfortable questions

  1. Well said Joern. It’s rare for science and policy communities to acknowledge the gray area between specific policy recommendations and discussions beyond the reaches of the current system. While some consider the former to reinforce the often frustrating and ineffective status quo, the latter is disregarded as radical and unrealistic. I think there is much to be gained from working to create a space where the two overlap and inform the discussion around big issues like sustainable/conservation agriculture. These “uncomfortable questions” will likely get to the root of the very behavior and perspective changes needed to move forward and act sustainably (in some cases, in the policy realm). As we step into this unknown future with the increased impacts of climate change and ever-growing populations and resource consumption, it’s more important than ever to really step out of the box to find solutions beyond the system that may very well be contributing to the problem!

  2. Agreed. Indeed, I think a far more important role is that of asking uncomfortable questions — and, if we are being serious with ourselves, pay attention to interesting works implying social resistance and civil disobedience are keys to reform (or perhaps revolution) — to be polemical, I would say “policy relevancy does not well inform regime shifts”. Yet most of us agree a regime shift is necessary–so why spend so much energy on approaches that (I would argue) have little empirical, well-researched evidence for regime-shifting?

    See e.g. “Is the earth f*cked?” ( on a modeling exercise finding that civil resistance is the only/most-likely way to precipitate trajectory change;

    and Turchin & Nefedov — — which, while complicated and (to my mind) overly-deterministic, makes a fairly strong case that trajectory change typically involves elite schisms (fairly deterministically in their model) — with a sector of elites supporting (in their models, I think, leading) mass-based movements for change. Excerpting my own conclusions from their model (perhaps too cavalierly), a larger number of relative elites — which in most countries includes academics — getting directly involved in pressures for social change is to the better for social change, and all but necessary (though of course not sufficient).

    I like to boil things down to stark questions, likely to the detriment of important nuance, but I increasingly do feel like those who want to see the system change — to conserve biodiversity, decrease profligate consumption, increase social equality, and decrease hunger and social marginalization — must spend more time (or send more of our numbers) into direct alliance, or even service to, communities and social movements. While I’m willing to be wrong, this is based on my read of social science literature from a variety of disciplines. The work by the Ideas4Sustainability team is really leading the way in creating a shared policy-relevancy-community-involvement space, and in creating and using their own reads of interdisciplinary literature. In any case, I feel like scientists wishing to see change actually happen (rather than wishing to grouse about change not happening in accordance with their preferred outcomes) need to at least develop a fluency in social change literature and configure our actions around some coherent theory as to WHY our actions will effectively lead to change, based on actual study, rather than an (often incorrect) presumption that the work we PREFER to do will also lead to the kinds of changes we would prefer to happen. The world is rarely that tidy, change is rarely that easy, and trade-offs between our own passions and our larger social goals is something that is itself, actually, a luxury. Choosing our own passions and assuming they accomplish our social goals is too easy and, all too likely, a luxury untied from reality.

  3. I should say, Joern’s team is leading the way in creating a space that merges “relevancy — hard questions” across a spectrum, meaning that important and innovative knowledge, education, and research seems likely to result! 🙂

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