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A strategic (& exciting?) research agenda for a sustainable future

It has been a long time coming, but Future Earth now seems to be getting in action mode and is  gearing up for the establishment of the globally-distributed secretariat. One of the first major tasks for the Secretariat and the Science and interim Engagement Committees is the production of a Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) for sustainability science.

Indeed, the production of the agenda can be seen as a first real test for the (knowledge) co-production strategy that is intended to be one of the trademarks characterizing Future Earth (see the recent Future Earth blog posts on the topic of co-design and co-production). In the production of the Strategic Research Agenda, Future Earth has already experimented with open online communication tools such as web-based surveys, blogging and social media.

The ambitious transdisciplinary agenda of Future Earth raises the question of whether something like a Strategic Research Agenda can go beyond its traditional role of guiding research funders. In other words, could a properly communicated research agenda also serve as a common focal point for creating energy and excitement about sustainability science among the general public?

The "Sutherland-style" Kyoto workshop

Over two days in May, Future Earth organized a workshop with twenty participants from the sciences, business and civil society, who were tasked with creating a strategic research agenda to guide Future Earth stakeholders for the next 3-5 years.

The inspiration and idea for the workshop came in particular from recently developed priority-setting and horizon-scanning methods used to identify important research questions and challenges in ecology and conservation biology. The approach is summarized in a 2011 paper by Sutherland et al. published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

Before the workshop took place, there had been a long process of collecting questions and opinions from the broader research community. Questions were collected from representative parts of the over 50,000-strong researcher community involved in the global environmental change projects transitioning to Future Earth. And to get a broad sense of how researchers and other stakeholders-at-large ranked these questions in terms of importance, an open online survey was distributed among sustainability-oriented research and other stakeholder communities in the month leading up to the workshop.

The task ahead for the workshop participants was to reduce the several hundred research questions generated during the past year to a much more manageable set of 40-50 top research priorities, over the course of 48 hours. To accomplish this daunting task, the group’s strategy involved splitting into two groups that would vote to identify 10-20 questions, each looking at four of eight topic categories. In the second stage of the workshop, each group would discuss priorities collectively across those four topics it had previously worked on, before the two groups joined together to get an overview and reflect on all the top priorities.

After 48 hours of intense discussion, voting and refinement, the entire group handed over a set of 40-50 questions to be reviewed and finalized by the Science and interim Engagement committees. One of the most interesting findings that emerged during the workshop was the high degree of agreement between priorities identified through the workshop and through the open online survey. At face value, this seems a promising result for the use of open online tools to support important Future Earth functions in the future.

Strategic research agendas and the general public?

Another interesting take-away from the workshop was the repeated highlighting of Future Earth's unique focus on…you guessed it … the future.

While at first this might not seem a particularly interesting point, the focus on possible futures for the planet gives Future Earth some opportunities for engaging the public – opportunities that appear to be inherent in normative research, but seem to have been rarely capitalized on. For if there is one thing we know, it is that we are all slightly different, as individuals, communities, countries and continents, and by creating a broad set of visions for sustainable and desirable societies – rather than just one possible development pathway – Future Earth might avoid the trap of being too general and diffuse in its recommendations, or on the other hand of being too narrow. Either of these possible scenarios seems to run the risk of losing the attention of the public from the outset.

To reflect more upon this opportunity, the Kyoto workshop ended with a plenary discussion about unexplored opportunities to generate public interest during or after the production of the Strategic Research Agenda.

Could the research agenda be communicated to the general public in more readily accessible and engaging bite-sized versions, instead of four-line long research questions contained in a single sentence? In other words, can the communication of something as dull-sounding as a research agenda be an attention-grabber for global change and sustainability research, for everyone from school kids to prime ministers, and thus generate critical involvement in – and support for – the sustainability science agenda?

How would one do this? One important feature of a research agenda targeted to engage the general public could be an extra emphasis on highlighting the relevance of Future Earth (sustainability science) research to the individual. In the best-case scenario, how will citizens in Africa, the Americas, Eurasia and Oceania benefit from Future Earth research in 5, 10 and 20 years? Everyday realities differ greatly between continents, and for Future Earth to be publicly relevant it must be able to communicate the importance of the research in a language that reflects these differences. This is where the globally distributed secretariat could serve Future Earth well. The distributed hubs have an advantage in that they’re likely to be closer to the sentiment of the public and to research funders in their respective regions.

A common observation at the Kyoto workshop was that the ultimate societal purpose of answering the research question was often not explicitly stated. Whether this observation reflects the reality of research communication, or whether it is a consequence of trying to achieve brevity, these purposes need to be very plainly stated in the communication of the final research agenda to reach the ambition of engaging Future Earth’s biggest stakeholder, the populations that fund the funders.

Indeed, if the ultimate relevance of Future Earth related research to civil society is obvious in the many areas that Future Earth integrates – then why not articulate this more? If the answers are not yet obvious, then such a campaign to engage the public would seem a worthwhile exercise for the research communities to go through.