| Sustainable development: EU research rises to the challenge

Need for sustainable development research

Organised in cooperation with the Czech Presidency of the EU, this three-day event held in Brussels, aimed to confront participants’ views regarding what R&D can and cannot do for sustainability.

Sustainable development is a core EU objective: to ensure that our present socio-economic development does not compromise our future, research in this area is therefore needed. Yet if the level of public funding for research is to be maintained or even increased, we must demonstrate that such research is bringing value to citizens. In addition, international scientific cooperation opens the door for further research opportunities and more robust answers as our societies are making efforts to adjust to changing conditions.

The programme comprised a mix of plenary and parallel sessions, covering the whole thematic spectrum of the Cooperation programme, and some parts of Capacities (notably, science and society). About half of the parallel sessions drew from the papers selected from the call for papers published and evaluated by the conference Scientific Committee chaired by Prof. Carlo Jaeger (Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research). The other half of the sessions was developed at the initiative of the Directorate-General for Research.

Fruitful debate

The discussion clearly showed that multiple bodies of knowledge address sustainability: state of the environment, knowledge of socio-economic systems, and technological progress leading to greater resource and energy efficiency. Indeed, in all 24 parallel sessions, sustainability was said to be seen as a useful driver to identify the future research agenda.

In addition, the participants concluded that sustainability also means adopting a constructive attitude towards the handling of boundaries and putting knowledge into context: within scientific disciplines, between different forms of knowledge (traditional, professional, scientific, etc.), and between knowledge and action. There was an overall consensus that sustainability will not flow from a scientific system that appears like an ‘ivory tower’, preaching to society. On the contrary, transdisciplinarity and stakeholder involvement were identified as key-elements.

Last but not least, beyond knowledge, sustainability and sustainable development refer to a state of mind or a way to think. Sustainability calls for questioning existing mental frameworks: myth of progress, faith in the markets, etc. This does not mean that there are ready-made alternatives, far from it; but at the very least, that there is a need to think outside the box and challenge these underlying mental frameworks.

Outcomes and the way forward

Overall, sustainability was identified as a powerful driver for designing the future research agenda. Rethinking the dynamics of knowledge production and valorisation is another way to term the challenge for European research, as seen through the sustainability lens.

Full access to the conference programme, presentations, speaker profiles and more is granted on the conference website, which will stay online as a reference tool to further the debate on research for sustainability. A book drawing from the conference, which will be coordinated by Prof. Jaeger, will be issued soon. In addition, DG Research published a paper on the conference content from the perspective of socio-economic sciences and humanities, "People, the economy and our planet".