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The role of science in finding solutions to wicked, systemic problems

This article belongs to Ambio’s 50th Anniversary Collection. Theme: Solutions-oriented research

What is the role of scientific knowledge?

Why did solution-oriented research emerge and grow strong within Ambio? What was the identified need? Ambio’s aims and objectives state that “Ambio particularly encourages multi- or inter-disciplinary submissions with explicit management or policy recommendations”. While this certainly encourages solution-oriented research it does not sufficiently describe what solution-oriented research is. With its focus on the human–environment interactions Ambio has been a forum for discussing many multifaceted environmental issues, as is evident from the 50th Anniversary Collection of topics and studies. However, it is one thing to study and describe a complex real-world problem—actually solving it adds yet another layer of complexity. Finding solutions to wicked environmental problems is not a matter of simple technical fixes or command-and-control procedures, or even providing clear messages about problems and their causes; the solutions are often as complex as the problems themselves and require long-term engagement processes that involve real-world experimentation, collective learning, and continuous adaptation and reformulation of knowledge. As the contributions to this anniversary collection shows, the human–environment focus of Ambio lends itself well also for understanding problem context and exploring strategies for dealing with complex problems. Offering actionable solutions is a matter of providing guidance, examples, and ideally solid evidence for how to successfully intervene in sustainability problems in order to resolve or at least mitigate them (Lang and Wiek 2021).

Much of the research on environment–society interactions, and the use-inspired socio-environmental sciences more broadly, is based on the assumption that more knowledge about system dynamics is necessary for improved decision-making and action related to sustainability. This assumption has been increasingly questioned and critiqued since the 1980s to early 2000s when the anniversary articles were published—we have easier access to more information and new ways for communication, dialogue and collaboration. Yet, the scale and level of coordination needed to address issues like excessive use of nitrogen (Cassman et al. 2002), land degradation (Nepstad et al. 1991), misuse of the oceans (Folke and Kautsky 1989) or freshwater flows (Falkenmark 1989) and quality (Brix and Schierup 1989) are still challenging. Over time, the ideas for how to take knowledge to action have changed (Tengö and Andersson 2021; Lang and Wiek 2021). Earlier, the often-leading assumption was that action was embedded within the knowledge, i.e. such as creating knowledge specifically about which management action to take and how to implement it (Miller et al. 2014; Wiek and Lang 2016; Mach et al. 2020).

Over the years, many Ambio studies have taken extra steps to bridge science and practice. These steps include tailored, targeted output, identification of mediators/brokers, context specific action strategies, developing principles and identifying leverage points. To do this, authors have analysed both specific problems and the wider context they are embedded in and emerge from. Both the authors themselves and others have then built on this foundation to further operationalise early suggestions and recommendations.

From problem to problem context

Discussing the challenge of balancing food production needs against nutrition leakage and its adverse environmental effects, Cassman et al. (2002) pointed to the need for location and context specific solutions, which would both require better information. This includes quantitative understanding of current levels of N-use efficiency and losses in these systems, and the biophysical controls on these factors, as well as the economic returns from adoption of improved management practices—and more effective ways for information uptake and implementation. As the authors now reflect (Cassman and Dobermann 2021), despite the promise in systematic agronomic approaches that harness (using e.g. Big Data and geospatial extrapolation frameworks to accelerate the process of optimising crop and soil management practices governing both yields and resource use efficiencies at production scale), implementation is slow. Overcoming this inertia would, the authors argue, require the implementation or strengthening of a number of wider, systemic enabling factors (ibid).

Similarly, Nepstad et al. (1991) argue that profitability is far from the only factor influencing the land-use decisions made, in their case by ranchers. They framed pasture as something that needs to be understood also as an argument in an ongoing discussion about what is deemed a socially acceptable or preferred land use, and in many cases ranching may also confer greater social status than competing land-uses (ibid).

Taking on water scarcity in Africa, Falkenmark (1989) identified governance structures and that would be required to improve overall water management, including the need—and approximate dimensions—for an overall (multi)national water strategy for socioeconomic development. Falkenmark argued for the need for cross-scale solutions, including international agreements for shared transboundary aquifers or rivers—and for including other measurements like population control in the strategies. She also identified knowledge tools that could support this reorientation of water management. Reflecting on her work after her 1989 paper (ibid) Falkenmark (2021) points to the importance of science-policy platforms and interfaces for taking scientific knowledge closer to practice.

Knowledge transfer, extension and co-creation

Information in itself, however relevant or salient, may not suffice. It needs processing, uptake and endorsement from practice. One way to facilitate uptake and promote knowledge-in-use is to build communities of practice. Brix and Schierup (1989) outlined a ‘bridging organisation’, a group dedicated to establishing and maintaining a communication link between individual scientists working with scientific and technical aspects of using macrophytes for water pollution control and resource recovery. This group, they argued, would contribute to the coordination of research and development in the field, and promote exchange of results and thus reduce or prevent unnecessary duplication of efforts and expense.

Describing the long-term outcomes and impact of their 1989 article (Folke and Kautsky 1989) on aquaculture and the need for better governance of our oceans, Folke and Kautsky (2021) highlight the importance of filling gaps in our understanding of the role of aquatic foods in global food systems. They also reflect on the importance of science for change, and provide an example of trust-building collaborative effort with co-production of knowledge and understanding, drawing on the best science to date and combining it with competencies and skills of the transnational aquaculture and fisheries corporations to move towards common goals (Folke and Kautsky 2021). In this process, the researchers “serve as honest brokers, providing the state-of-the-art science to clarify, motivate and inspire the companies to perform towards sustainable ocean futures” (Folke and Kautsky 2021).

In their reflections on the state of the field and future challenges, Tengö and Andersson (2021) and Lang and Wiek (2021) describe the roles science and research can and will have in a broader exploration of actionable solutions. In essence, they argue, while scientific knowledge is vital for tackling the many complex and profound problems and challenges we are facing, perhaps it is rather a reframed scientific practice we should look to for finding real-world ‘solutions’? One of the most important insights from recent work on knowledge interfaces and joint learning processes is that both knowledge needs and processes for actively create and develop knowledge differ across situations and contexts. Thus, assessing and adapting to the context is critical to achieve active learning and for putting knowledge to use (Tengö and Andersson 2021). Deeper, richer and more continuous dialogues between scholars and other actors, beyond traditional education and extension work, would strengthen at least one pathway towards turning actionable knowledge into knowledge-in-use. Furthermore, this interface offers opportunities (and potentially risks) for researchers to make science more transparent and discuss the validity and application of their work. As Lang and Wiek (2021) say, more and more venues for joint learning are emerging, and experiences from these may cause research to think through just how we ask and answer questions.



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Correspondence to Erik Andersson.

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Andersson, E. The role of science in finding solutions to wicked, systemic problems. Ambio (2021).

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