Session report: Climate action, resource efficiency and raw materials

Parallel session, Tuesday, 24th September 2013, 09:30-12:30, Room I-408, 4th floor

Report: Markus Amman and Pavel Kabat
September 30, 2013

Chair: Pavel Kabat, International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, Austria 
Rapporteur: Markus Amman, International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, Austria
Statement: Diana Urge-Vorsatz, Central European University, Hungary
Statement: Bronislaw Szerszynski, Lancaster University, United Kingdom
Statement: Arnoldas Milukas, European Commission, Belgium (PDF)
Coordinator: Katja Mayer, Office of the ERC president, Austria

This parallel session took up the “societal challenge” as formulated under “Horizon 2020”, with the objective “to achieve a resource and water efficient and climate change resilient economy and society, the protection and sustainable management of natural resources and ecosystems, and a sustainable supply and use of raw materials”. Maybe more than any other, this topic requires international collaboration at least at European level. At the same time, it is probably the most disputed one. It is tempting to define seemingly clear-cut policy targets; however, recent history proves how difficult it is for national governments to comply. Consequently, some of the key issues discussed in this panel were: What is currently the role of SSH in relating political targets to scientific research findings; and should this role be improved or altered altogether? How can SSH research contribute to the global efforts of climate research and environment studies? How do human behaviour and societal relations towards environment and resources evolve, and what lessons can be drawn from it?

In contrast to some of the other societal challenges addressed by the Horizon2020 program, there is full recognition in the climate change and resource efficiency area that a better integration of SSH in natural science research is absolutely required for the development of effective responses. Present solutions developed by natural science are often not working out in practice, inter alia, because people do not behave along the same rationales that are assumed by the models used by natural scientists. Only a better understanding of the human dimension and its integration into natural science research will enable relevant conclusions that point towards viable transformation strategies.

While in the past there have been several attempts to integrate SSH and natural science research (e.g., by IPCC AR4, FP7), these did not always fully achieve the envisaged results. To some extent, limited success can be associated with the current ‘research ecology’, i.e., the mono-disciplinary organization of science and only modest incentives for scientists to work on interdisciplinary projects. However, experience with FP7 environment projects that were required to include policy interaction and stakeholder involvement highlights a number of practical challenges for researchers involved in these projects:

  • In many cases, natural scientists involved in these project found it difficult to identify partners from the SSH communities, as communities tend to work in isolation.
  • Communication between natural and SSH scientists was difficult, due to different scientific languages and traditions.
  • Communities apply rather different frameworks and paradigms, so that in many cases research questions were mutually perceived as irrelevant.

There are doubts that the current (draft) formulation of the Horizon 2020 programme will be able to resolve these issues and challenges. To overcome these problems, a number of specific proposals have been made in the discussion:

The palette of social science and humanities disciplines drawn upon in responding to the grand challenge of climate change and resource efficiency should be expanded. Inter alia, two aspects were mentioned where scientific progress by SSH could provide relevant insights.  Understanding of the lack of progress towards societal transition could be enhanced by including research not only from conventional SSH disciplines such as psychology, but also from other areas such as the history of technology, environmental history and political economy). Also, the challenges of thinking through the Anthropocene could enhance the relevance of SSH research.

However, the desire for enhanced ‘integration’ across disciplines could lead to important dilemmas. For instance, an overemphasis on integration might lead to the neglect of disciplines and approaches that are not so easily harmonised with dominant technical approaches, but nevertheless can contribute import alternative insights. Also, the goal of producing unified recommendations for policy can privilege a restricted model of the relationship between science and policy; in areas of high uncertainty it might sometimes be useful to encourage multiple, antagonistic discourses, consistent with an ‘honest broker’ model of the science–policy relationship.

For collaborative projects, the following elements could facilitate more productive working between SSH and the natural sciences:

  • There must be strong (external) incentives for communities to embark on collaboration and integration.
  • The specific research questions of a project must be developed by larger communities involving both natural and SSH scientists. This will require longer in-person working meetings involving very different disciplines, and must give space for the long process of community building.
  • Research must be conducted in an interdisciplinary and not just a multidisciplinary manner. This means that within a research project, contributions from different scientific disciplines should not be grouped into separate, unrelated work packages, to be combined at the end.  More complex, iterative relations must be devised to ensure genuine interaction and learning between disciplines.
  • While it is obvious that project review and monitoring panels must strike a proper balance of scientists from natural and SSH disciplines, it will be essential to include also experts with experience in interdisciplinary research, to ensure that the designs of projects are consistent with good practice in interdisciplinary research, and include mechanisms for monitoring and ensuring the quality of interdisciplinary interactions.

However, participants felt that today the greatest challenge emerges from the urgency for action, both for shaping the Horizon2020 programme as well as for finding response strategies to climate change. The group developed the following recommendations for immediate action:

1. Research questions for (later) calls of the Horizon 2020 work programme should be defined through stakeholder consultations of various types, involving experts from different fields.

2. In the preparatory phase, space, time and funding should be provided for developing the joint proposals.

3. The European Commission should tap into the parallel activities of existing Europe-wide organizations that represent relevant science communities (Future Earth, EASST, etc.).

4. The review/monitoring activities of Horizon 2020 projects should not only open up to SSH involvement, but should also involve experts in interdisciplinary research. Relevant independent experts should be invited to register and/to update their profile on the EC Participant Portal.

For details of the Horizon 2020 work programme and open calls: