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Barnard Lecture: Science Must Change Radically to Solve Global Challenges

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Solutions to global challenges will involve multiple types of knowledge, said Heide Hackmann. | AAAS

The problems facing society, such as global climate change, are so complex and immense that nothing short of a full transformation of science will help us solve them, said Heide Hackmann, executive director of the International Council for Science (ISCU). A "new global science policy paradigm" must provide the enabling conditions to support such a transformation, involving all stages of science, from how research projects are conceived and organized, to how they are carried out and disseminated, from how research is funded, monitored and evaluated to how researchers are rewarded, she said.

"When it comes to contributing transformative solutions to the problems societies face today, we can't keep doing science the way we've been doing it," said Heide Hackmann. "We need to pursue new ways of producing knowledge and making sure it gets used. Those new ways entail pursuing an open, inclusive, and integrated approach to knowledge production."

Hackmann delivered the 15th annual Robert C. Barnard Environmental Lecture, organized by the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, on 24 June. Before becoming the executive director of ICSU, which is based in Paris, Hackmann headed the International Social Science Council (ISSC) and has worked as a science policy-maker and researcher in the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, and South Africa.

True global collaboration means "including the agendas, perspectives, approaches, methods, models, and voices of scientists from all parts of the world."

Heide Hackmann, ICSU Executive Director

Although she focused on global climate change as the problem driving the need for a transformation in science and science policy, Hackmann was careful to explain that this change must address other, interconnected challenges as well, such as poverty and inequality, social conflict, and infectious diseases.

There are several new international programs in the field of sustainability research that are making the shift toward the type of science and new, open "knowledge systems" Hackmann envisions. For example, Future Earth, launched in 2012 by ICSU and other international organizations, is a global platform for coordinating new, inter- and transdisciplinary approaches to research on global environmental change. Its mission includes ensuring that knowledge is generated in partnership with society and users of science, and it is open to researchers from all disciplines. Another new program, the ISSC's Transformations to Society, is led by social science researchers but requires them to bring in colleagues from the natural sciences and to work with societal stakeholders. Research projects must also be led or co-led by researchers from low-income countries.

In partnership with multiple other science councils and academies, ICSU also plans to convene a global science policy forum starting next December. The idea is create an international science policy forum where "we can try to set principles around the integration of science as an open public enterprise," Hackmann said.

The "narrative" of science's role in society has changed over the decades, according to Hackmann. In the 1940s and 50s, science was often considered inherently promising for society. In his seminal report, "Science, the Endless Frontier," inventor and statesman Vannevar Bush urged President Harry Truman to fund basic science for the sake of the nation's future. The next three decades of science policy saw an emphasis on use-inspired research and strategic R&D. In the 1990s — and "I think many of us are sort of stuck there," Hackmann said — science's relevance to society was chiefly about driving innovation, economic growth, and national competitiveness. Moving forward, she said, science policy must focus on the role of science in shaping and securing a sustainable and just world.

To achieve this transformation, scientists must collaborate across disciplines — and not just across closely related disciplines but across all areas of the natural and social sciences, according to Hackmann. In global climate change research in particular, natural scientists still tend to set the research agenda, and social scientists are often involved only after the natural scientists "have analyzed a process and come up with solutions, and need social scientists to help sell those solutions to society," Hackmann said. Instead, social and natural scientists must work together at all stages of the research process, beginning with how research questions and problems are framed.

"We cannot afford to make small, incremental change happen when it comes to our work."

Heide Hackmann

Science must also become more international, with researchers from both developed and developing regions collaborating in fair and equal ways, she said: True global collaboration means "including the agendas, perspectives, approaches, methods, models, and voices of scientists from all parts of the world."

And, science must embrace other participants besides scientists. Citizens, activists and others who are affected by the issues being investigated, including indigenous peoples, must be partners in setting research agendas and contributing their own knowledge. Scientists and decision-makers must work together directly as well in the co-design and co-production of relevant knowledge, Hackmann said. This directive involves new ways of connecting science to policy and practice. We can longer rely on research "percolating through the media and through think-tanks, for example," to reach policy, nor should researchers depend as they tend to do "on world famous scientists or authorities to make sure that our work reaches the ears of policy-makers," she said.

Making this transformation happen will not be easy; many of the old ways of doing science are deeply embedded in the policies that fund and organize science, said Hackmann. Discipline-specific projects are favored, funding global research is difficult, and scientists do not necessarily have the process and communication skills needed to manage processes of co-design and co-production — and few are rewarded for gaining those skills. And, as the academic "precariat" grows, said Hackmann, referring to postdoctoral researchers who work on successive contracts without the opportunity to become salaried professors, "so do regimes of competition rather than collaboration, and the pressure to play by business as usual rules persists."

Examples like Future Earth show that change is possible, but "we are running out of time," said Hackmann. "We cannot afford to make small, incremental change happen when it comes to our work." Transformative science will need to be supported by profound and rapid  change in science policy-making, from local to global scales.

Author

Kathy Wren