Skip to main content

New knowledge partnerships needed to address sustainability challenges

How academics, members of the public and policy makers can work together to research solutions to climate change challenges. Find out more in this blog by Dr Paul Bolger, UCC.

By Dr Paul Bolger
Manager, Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork
No. 12 in the Current Opinion Series of the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee.

We live in a world that is complex, deeply interconnected, and human health and planetary health are woven into one. So governments need frameworks and ways of thinking that can hold that complexity – that can think about climate and health and jobs and financial stability and inequality in one space.’ Economist Kate Raworth

There has been a clear shift in how we talk about climate change in public over the last half decade. Since the 2015 Paris Agreement we have progressed from ‘climate change’ to ‘climate action.’ In the past two years, the preferred nomenclature amongst activists and NGOs, and more recently policymakers and scientists, has become ‘climate emergency’ reflecting the urgency of the climate challenge. How should our higher education system respond to the requirement for urgent action on not only climate change but also on biodiversity loss, circular economy and a just transition?

Universities have tremendous potential to help understand and catalyse action on sustainability challenges. The extraordinary depth of expertise across the natural and social sciences, engineering, the arts and humanities, and business, can be called upon to examine the causes and consequences of sustainability problems. However, universities often struggle to mobilise their unique capacities in ways that effectively link knowledge with action. The curiosity-driven approaches within academic departments, which form the bedrock of academic research, have worked exceptionally well for problems that are well defined within specific disciplines and technological in nature. However, these approaches may be less-well equipped to provide answers to complex problems that are systemic, interdependent, and multi-faceted. A large proportion of the UN Sustainable Development Goals fall into this category of ‘wicked’ problems.

For many sustainability challenges, additional scientific information about the underlying problem is not necessarily the limiting factor in the development of more sustainable outcomes. An equally important task is to link the production of this knowledge with action where it matters. The transition towards sustainability thus requires not just more novel knowledge but also more usable knowledge. For practitioners wishing to address sustainability challenges, the knowledge within our higher education institutes matters only to the extent that it can be used to construct actions around issues of concern.

To take one example. Poor air quality continues to be a real and persistent environmental problem in our cities and towns and has a significant impact on human health. Solving this problem is a clear win for our society. What would it take to do this? To develop the best possible strategy to address poor air quality would require the integrated expertise and knowledge of many stakeholders including scientists to comprehend the atmospheric chemistry and public health effects, engineers to develop viable solutions, economists to assess best value options, policy-makers to create enabling legislation, local authorities with knowledge of city planning, along with a sustained dialogue and input from business and communities to ensure benefits and impacts are understood. However, even if there was the willingness, and funding, to engage with such a challenge across multiple levels and sectors, we lack the organisational frameworks for building these types of collaborations.

Yet, it is precisely this approach that is being advocated for within the new Horizon Europe programme which focuses on mission-oriented science (big science deployed to meet big problems) requiring the integration of multiple forms of knowledge and the expertise of end users. Guided by the work of Mariana Mazzucato (Mission-Oriented Research & Innovation in the European Union), mission oriented science is conducted to stimulate cross-disciplinary academic work and it requires new forms of partnerships among the public sector, the private sector and civil society organisations. Crucial to the implementation of EU missions will be the need to reinvigorate capacity and competence building in public organisations and institutions.

The co-production of knowledge can be a powerful means to meet the requirements posed by mission-oriented research. Co-production approaches bring actors from outside academia into the research process in order to integrate the best available knowledge, reconcile values and preferences, as well as creating ownership for solution options. Knowledge co-production can enhance research quality and produce more usable knowledge and is increasingly seen as a possibility to foster sustainable futures. One of the most notable recent initiatives in this area in Ireland has been Campus Engage based at the Irish Universities Association (IUA) which has the ambition to promote civic and community engagement as a core function of Irish higher education.

The collaborative co-production of research advocated by Horizon Europe and Campus Engage was the focus of an online symposium organised by the Royal Irish Academy’s Climate Change and Environmental Sciences committee on 3 June 2021. The symposium and white paper explored how the Irish research system can respond to the demand for increased levels of collaboration and interaction amongst scientists, stakeholders and funders to co-produce knowledge from sustainability research, and increase its use in policy, decision-making and practice. In advance of the symposium over fifty case studies on research co-production across the island of Ireland were collected encompassing research across a wide variety of sustainability and environmental research areas. Non-academic partners were drawn from industry, government departments, local authorities, NGOs, community groups, and the public. Some examples of case studies included:

  • university partnerships with local community groups to reimagine restoration of the River Camac in Dublin.
  • creating community maps in Galway City not just to record the city’s social, environmental, economic and cultural assets but also as a tool to work with communities to explore what they value in their city.
  • an innovative multi-partner initiative for Corca Dhuibhne (Dingle Peninsula) working with the local community, schools, businesses, and farmers to enable the broader societal changes emanating from the low carbon transition.

The case studies show that there is a diverse community of academics and researchers in Ireland who are deeply committed to co-producing knowledge with non-academic stakeholders. The key barriers and challenges to research co-production identified within the case studies were: (i) different approaches and goals of partners, (ii) lack of resources for sustained engagement, (iii) long or mismatched timescales required for co-production, (iv) communication and different language and culture of partners and (v) ensuring equality, trust and respect.

Participants within the case studies and RIA workshop proposed that some of these challenges can be addressed by: (i) agreeing goals, roles and processes at the outset, (ii) managing relationships and maintaining trust, (iii) engaging early to co-design and build a shared understanding, (iv) communicating and sharing knowledge regularly, (v) hiring project managers and facilitators and (vi) providing adequate resources and time.

Ireland’s relatively small size and population, our traditionally close connections between academia-policy-industry, and our strong civic base within towns and villages gives us a unique advantage creating knowledge co-production communities. However, there is a need to move beyond individual exemplars of good practices to scale up and build capacity for these multi-actor partnerships to catalyse the necessary transition to a zero carbon and resource efficient society in the coming decades.

A version of this piece was originally published by RTÉ Brainstorm.

Interview with Dr Paul Bolger

When did you join the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee?
I joined the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee in 2019.

What is your area of research expertise and where are you based?
I am interested in how we can embed inter- and trans-disciplinary approaches at institutional level to create more impactful outcomes for environmental and sustainability research. I am currently principal investigator on a number of research projects on climate change and the circular economy. I am manager of the Environmental Research Institute at UCC where we bring together 400 researchers to work on sustainability and environmental research questions in interdisciplinary teams.

What do you think is the single most pressing environmental issue facing Ireland?
Addressing the climate emergency is rightly at the top of Ireland’s political agenda at the moment, but we can’t lose sight of other inter-locking environmental challenges relating to biodiversity, water, air quality, and waste. The good news is that, with the right approaches, solutions to one challenge can have beneficial outcomes across multiple issues e.g. introduction of more cycle lanes has better outcomes for climate, air quality, human health, and resource use.

In your opinion what are some of the most compelling solutions to this issue?
For climate action it would be investment in public transport and home retrofitting by government.
For biodiversity and water it would be proper compensation for farmers for ‘ecosystem services.’
For waste it would be serious investment in circular economy solutions by business

What advice do you have for individuals to tackle this environmental issue?
For individuals it would be (a) to tell their local representatives that these issues matter to them at election time (b) to vote with their ‘pockets’ when shopping i.e. choose more sustainable products and (c) start a conversation with their friends and family about environmental issues important to them.