Oslo Sustainability Summit 2009: Challenges to research in times of crisis

Clear thematic priority areas, cross-disciplinary cooperation and a global approach will be imperative in research for yielding effective remedies to the climate and environmental crisis. This was the message from Arvid Hallén, head of the Research Council of Norway, to participants at the recent Oslo Sustainability Summit.

The conference was organized under the auspices of the Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo, and the Centre for Corporate Responsibility, Norwegian School of Management (BI). Conference topics included research, technology, the economy and industry, culture, political governance and public administration.

Arvid Hallén. Photo: The research Council of Norway (Forskningsrådet)

Director General Arvid Hallén. Photo: The research Council of Norway (Forskningsrådet)

Arvid Hallén, Director General of the Research Council, opened the summit with a speech outlining three observations related to the challenges facing research in times of crisis – whether financial or climate-related in nature.

Conscious priorities

Firstly, Dr Hallén pointed out that the thematic areas prioritised for government funding reveal what we as a society regard as crucial issues.

“The rapid and dramatic changes to the climate, especially in the Arctic, challenge us to continue asking the why-questions to which we still lack answers. We need basic science to understand what is going on. At the same time we need to pose how-questions related to future low- or no-emission energy production and transportation systems. Since it is likely that the climate changes will continue, we need research into the security of communities and means of mitigation.”

Answers from Norway

“Norway is about to face the challenges,” asserted Dr Hallén, citing several examples of steps being taken: Norway has been an important contributor to the International Polar Year, which has a strong focus on climate. In 2008 eight new Centres for Environment-friendly Energy Research (CEER) were established for developing various forms of renewable energy. Energi21 and Klima21 are national processes involving all the stakeholders within the respective fields. The Research Council is a key player in all these areas.

Interdisciplinary efforts

“My second observation is that the emergence of greater collaboration between science disciplines over the last decades is fully in line with the Brundtland Commission’s call for more holistic approaches.”

“It is a constant challenge to science that academic disciplines tend to work in isolation. Individual disciplines are unable to provide satisfying analyses of the complexity of the natural world, economics or politics,” continued Dr Hallén, noting that research is increasingly conducted within broader-based projects involving several disciplines.

“But we still have a long way to go,” he emphasised, mentioning in particular that more attention should be devoted to involving humanities and social sciences in collaboration with natural science and technology research and development. “We cannot offset crisis and enforce sustainability without a firm understanding of the cultural and social context.”

Global interdependence

Dr Hallén’s third observation was to acknowledge that since the various crises of our time all are global, we must also understand that we can only find the knowledge needed to counteract crisis through international

research cooperation.

“We are starting to realise just how global interdependency both makes modern societies vulnerable and provides us with unprecedented opportunities. The challenges we face are global; they must be solved through global cooperation, based on knowledge from a global knowledge pool.”

“Even if it is a small country, Norway carries a particular responsibility to contribute to the building of the global knowledge base on crucial issues.” In areas such as polar science and energy research, he went on, “we have cutting-edge expertise to offer.”

The geography of knowledge is rapidly changing. “The centre of gravity is shifting toward the emerging economies: China, India and Southeast Asia. The internationalisation of science is no longer reserved for only those scientists who are especially interested; it has become an imperative for research and development. Otherwise our welfare and security is at stake.”

Research and politics

“What do scientists do with their knowledge in times of crisis?” he asked the researchers in attendance.

“This summit takes place in the interface between politics and science. I will not advise scientists on whether or not to be involved in the translation of science into politics. But I do know that it is hard to insist on performing science secluded from and untainted by politics.”

“It is no longer a prerequisite for science of the highest standards that the scientist has achieved disengagement from societal debate. One of my favorites, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, once said, ‘Unsustainable situations usually go on longer than most economists think possible. But they always end, and when they do, it’s often painful.’ Let me add,” concluded Dr Hallén, “that with sufficient knowledge we can hopefully prevent that crisis leads to crash – and avoid some of the pain.”

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