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The Sciences Required for Understanding Sustainability

By Pablo Servigne

‘Classic’, ‘neutral’ science, broken down into disciplines and cut off from society, is not capable of understanding the current systemic crisis. It is even less capable of responding to it. Tom Dedeurwaerdere’s report – published for the first interdisciplinary congress on sustainable development and organised with the support of the Walloon minister of scientific research, Jean-Marc Nollet (Ecolo) puts forward strong proposals to decompartmentalise disciplines and involve society and ethics in the sciences.

Faced with the critical situation currently being experienced by our society, every scientific discipline is following his minor proposal: climatologists, agronomists, engineers, architects, economists, sociologists, etc. There are proposals that are sometimes contradictory and often out of touch with the real world. Furthermore, it is becoming evident that this array of ‘mono-disciplinary’ proposals will never lead to an overall strategy. On the contrary, tunnel-vision thinking prevents systematic thinking. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Interestingly, many scientists are aware of this – and are even concerned by it although they cannot say so out loud – ‘no more than parents can argue in front of their children’ (1). The reason being that opening such a debate in society would mean bringing science’s authority into question. Such a disaster would lead to the ‘public’s’ loss of confidence in science, as science is always seen as ‘objective’ and unequivocal. That failure to discuss is the price we pay for scientific ‘progress’, but ‘knowing why today such progress can be linked to ‘unsustainable development’ is a question that will never be raised’ (2)… And this is a significant obstacle.

A new science

With this oppressive and paralysing observation in mind, Jean-Marc Nollet, the Walloon minister of sustainable development, commissioned a report by Tom Dedeurwaerdere in order to identify the problem and offer up proposals for reform. The report, presented at the first interdisciplinary congress on sustainable development, which took place in Namur at the end of January 2013, proposes to open up scientific practice in three ways.

Firstly, through inter-disciplinarity which consists in ensuring collaboration between the disciplines and forcing researchers to create a new common language whilst taking other disciplines into account. For example, the gross domestic product is a simple measure of (mono-disciplinary) economic activity but we have long known that it does not take a society’s happiness into account – nor its quality of life, far from it. Other measures have since been created, combining several disciplines from the social sciences, but these have not yet been officially implemented.

Creating a dialogue between the sciences is good, but it’s not enough. The ivory tower still stands. Scientific practice must begin to involve the society in which it exists, as a matter of urgency. This is what we call transdisciplinarity: formulating research topics with the actors of society (in political, voluntary, and activist spheres); collecting and analysing data with the same actors, and then applying conclusions with and for society. This should be science’s ultimate objective! There are few examples, but they do exist. University-city partnerships around the ‘zero CO2’ objective bringing together architects, engineers, sociologists and economists who work on the ground and talk to people about mobility, urban agriculture, etc.

But inter- and transdisciplinarity still do not suffice. Even if it was cooperative and open to society, science would still be weak. A third equally important element needs to be incorporated and that is ‘ethics’. The ethics of strong sustainable development (5) within the scientific institution, but also ethics as an explicit topic of study. In short, ceasing to think of science as being ‘neutral’.

This troika of inter-disciplinarity, transdisciplinarity and ethics applies to all complex problems. That is to say, problems that hold strong uncertainty (unpredictability), which are subject to controversy, and where ethical values are being debated: sustainable development, medicine, culture, the arts, etc.

How to move forward

These proposals are consistent with the observation made by Isabelle Stengers in her new book Une autre science est possible! (Another science is possible!). The Belgian philosopher develops the notion of the sciences’ ‘public intelligence’ in order to dissolve the opposition between science and opinion. Its upheaval: ‘It is the very ethos of scientists that is being questioned, particularly their distrust towards any risk of ‘mixing’ what they consider as ‘fact’ and ‘values’.

In order to move forwards, synergies between research bodies, in addition to new fields, must be created. In Flanders, the Institute Science and Technology, an independent and autonomous scientific institution linked to the Flemish parliament, recently published a report similar to Tom Dedeurwaedere’s. The link between the two reports has just been made by academics. Things are evolving; we hope that the political world will follow.

The credibility of this kind of approach has begun to be acknowledged over the past four or five years. Similar initiatives are emerging all over the world but there is no coordinated movement. The challenge now is identifying them, creating a network between them, and multiplying them. It’s now or never.

This article was initially published in the Belgian publication ‘Imagine‘.

 

References

(1) Isabelle Stengers. Une autre science est possible ! Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond, La Découverte, 2013.
(2) Op. cit., p 12.
(3) In reference to strong vs weak sustainability.

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