Text: Anja Bretzler, SCNAT
For this purpose and to serve as an inspiration and guidance to researchers and research institutions, the Swiss Academies of Sciences have developed six priority research topics for sustainability science. Around 50 people came together to discuss the relevance of these priority themes for research at the University of Zurich, as well as the challenges science and society face today and how synergies and inter- and transdisciplinary collaboration can be fostered. The event was a collaboration between the University of Zurich, the Sustainability Research Initiative of the Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).
Moving on from “business-as-usual”
In his opening words, Lorenz Hilty, the Sustainability Delegate of the University of Zurich, took a critical look at the fears of many research institutions that engagement for sustainability issues could put scientific excellence at risk. Considering the crises that our societies are faced with, what is the meaning of excellence? “Doing business-as-usual research is not enough”, emphasized Hilty, “we need to leave our hamster wheel”. This was further elaborated on in the following presentation by Peter Edwards, president of the Sustainability Research Initiative. Edwards echoed that the science system urgently needs to change in order to respond to the major challenges of our time. Incentives for engaging in transdisciplinary partnerships as well as partnerships with the Global South are lacking, and career development remains too focused on the publication of peer-reviewed papers. Little connection exists between output, such as research results and scientific papers, and real impact that induces changes in society, technologies or policy. Overcoming existing barriers and finding pathways that link results to impact should therefore be a major focus of research activities.
Half-way there: How to read progress towards the SDGs?
Having engaged with one of the first documents on Sustainable Development, the “World Conservation Strategy” in 1980 and having attended the Rio conference in 1992, Mark Halle, Principal of the organisation NatureFinance, drew a large circle in his keynote presentation from the Agenda 21 to the current global framework and focus of sustainability, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These offer a standard to which governments should hold, and some genuine progress has been made. Nevertheless, real commitment to the SDGs is often lacking and states are not sanctioned if the goals are not met. Especially the predatory action of finance and many large enterprises are not limited by the SDGs. Mark Halle underlined that an effective implementation of the SDGs is only possible if they become the defining policy to which all sectors must align. Additionally, conflicting policies and activities that undermine sustainable development (e.g., the existing massive subsidies of fossil fuels) need to be phased out. The introduction of accountability structures that penalise governments and enterprises not aligning their policies to net zero and nature-positive outcomes would be a necessary measure. Concerning the role of research, Halle addressed the scientists present in the room directly by imploring to “resist the call for more research and evidence”, and rather produce research that shows pathways for action and contributes to policy reform and the shifting of social norms. Solutions, according to Mark Halle, are not provided by knowledge transfer alone, though many scientists still believe in this “one-way” pathway.
Focus on social sciences and humanities
Considering the massive gaps between the aims of sustainable development and their implementation, what are the roles and responsibilities of science today? Where does the University of Zurich stand regarding research for sustainable development, and is it “on track”? These were some of the questions posed by moderator Jeannette Behringer, responsible for Sustainability in Research and Teaching at UZH, to the panellists Martina Eberle (Social Anthropology, University of Berne), Oliver Strijbis (Institute of Political Science, UZH), Ina Schelling (student and former member of the Sustainability Committee at UZH) and Cornelia Krug (Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, UZH) during the panel discussion.
Martina Eberle commented that the social sciences have a vital role to play in accompanying societal transformation. This includes research on new incentive systems, political and personal decision-making, social inequalities and how to build bridges and long-lasting partnerships. Oliver Strijbis added, that designing policies that “capture the hearts of the voters” and are devoted to sustainable development is a challenging and relevant research area for political and social scientists. Moreover, creative taxation and incentive structures that tax unsustainable lifestyles and make rewards and refunds for sustainable lifestyles more visible need to be developed.
Research and teaching for sustainable development at UZH
According to the panellists, progress towards sustainable development has been made at the University of Zurich in recent years, with the sustainability team becoming much more visible and more courses being offered on sustainability topics. Ina Schelling, however, reminded the participants that sustainability is still often seen as a topic for the environmental sciences and called for the need to integrate sustainability into teaching and research of a wide range of disciplines at the University of Zurich.
Research activities aligned to the Academies’ priority themes and further sustainability research areas are being carried out in numerous groups and faculties at the University of Zurich, but are often not strategically interconnected and collaboration across disciplines could be strengthened. One institutional mechanism to improve interdisciplinary collaborations and to build awareness for different ways of creating knowledge that was discussed during the panel could be the creation of a so-called “interfaculty”. Such a faculty of inter- and transdisciplinarity would focus on the dialogue between science and society, grant opportunities for inter- and transdisciplinary careers and PhD programmes and provide a physical space to meet and work across disciplines.
With many insightful inputs providing food for thought, the event was a valuable opportunity for researchers and students from different faculties to come together, discuss research priorities and envision a University of Zurich “fit for the future”.