Relevant Research

A growing number of young researchers in various fields are realizing that responding to global challenges creates a need for a rethinking of some of the basic underlying assumptions of applied science.  A re-examination of how and why research is done is necessary but often overlooked in the name of moving forward on specific research projects.  Along that line, we argue that research is often not critical and self-reflexive enough and gets lost in the details without connecting to the bigger questions for the future of humanity.

Based on a survey among the participants of IIASA’s Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) 2014, we synthesized our five Big Questions or Themes regarding the future of humanity, in order to start a conversation on these topics:

  1. Adapting to changing environments: Who will be affected how badly?
  2. Planetary boundaries and resource constraints: How will we manage to live within planetary boundaries and resource constraints?
  3. (Re-)defining quality of life: Can (and should) humanity prosper without economic growth?
  4. Dealing with conflict: What will be the main reasons for conflict in the future and how to overcome them?
  5. The efficiency fetish of science and technology: What are or should be the moral and ethical limitations to optimization?

We discussed those questions at a World Café which included YSSP participants and IIASA researchers from different cultural and scientific backgrounds. The outcome was not a list of answers to the five questions, but a list of guidelines for researchers who want to make science that matters:

  1. Connect and relate to the bigger picture

We as scientists know that when doing research, it is easy to get tangled up in the details and miss the bigger picture of why the specific research matters. There are three crucial aspects to avoid not seeing the forest for the trees. First, it is essential to reflect about the impact that our own research has on society. Second, and connected to the first aspect, researchers need to relate and engage with their audience to ensure that produced knowledge is credible, salient, and legitimate. Third, communicating research results means taking part in broader societal discussions: every scientific question, especially in applied sciences, raises political and ethical challenges and we need to realize that these cannot be separated from our research activities.

  1. Accept that controversy is a fact and that it matters

The second main takeaway message is that there is controversy around important issues and that sometimes controversy is a desirable thing. As applied scientists we need to understand that there are different perceptions about a research topic, based on different (cultural) worldviews, politicized processes and from the framing of the issue. Furthermore these perceptions change over time. This means that researchers have to constantly reassess their own perceptions about the specific research topic. However, we argue that controversy drives research forward and, as climate scientist Mike Hulme puts it, disagreeing is a form of learning.

  1. Be more reflective about normative assumptions and cultural biases underlying research

Another important aspect that we want to stress is that the framing of a research question reflects assumptions made about it, either explicitly or implicitly. We agree that making assumptions is of course needed in science, as it is an inherent part of dealing with real world complexity, incomplete knowledge, and uncertainty. But we argue that at the same time, it is important to be aware of and open about the assumptions made. We would like to reiterate three important questions a researcher should answer for herself when framing a research topic: who, where and when? Who do we assume are the stakeholders most affected by our research? Where do we concentrate our attention on? When, i.e. which time horizon(s), is our research focused on?

  1. Foster inter- and transdisciplinary research

We are aware that for an individual scientist, it is not an easy task to take all of the three previous points into account. Therefore, to engage with the Big Questions, science needs to approach them from multiple angles and foster inter- and transdisciplinary research between natural sciences, social sciences, the humanities, and non-scientific stakeholders. We are certain that not being restricted to only one discipline paints a more detailed and comprehensive picture of a specific problem and thereby yields knowledge that is socially more robust and usable.

We have presented four guidelines that scientists should consider when doing research that seeks to matter. However, it is not our intention to give commandments about how to do science. What we learned from engaging with those questions is that debating the big picture and being exposed to conflicting viewpoints is not only imperative for doing research that strives to be relevant for the future of humanity, but can also be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. And this is perhaps the key message: Have fun with your research and find meaning in it by connecting to other researchers and to the bigger questions for the future of humanity.

A modified version of this post first appeared here.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 


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