Overline: Global Sustainability Strategy Forum
Headline: Covid-19 and Sustainability: How the scientific community can support societal change through policy advice

In no other policy area is the discrepancy between knowledge and action greater than in the field of sustainability. What can academic institutions do to ensure that scientific insights are translated into action in business, politics and civil society? At the third Global Sustainability Strategy Forum, 35 sustainability experts discussed this question – especially in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Global Sustainability Strategy Forum

Their discussions revolved around the role academic institutions can play in solving wicked problems: How can sustainability science produce orientation knowledge for policymakers? How should researchers cooperate with political, business and civil society leaders at local and regional level? What lessons can be learned from the pandemic about the responsibility of science and what institutional reforms are required in this context?

Sustainability experts from around the world brought their knowledge and diverse perspectives to the table over three days of lively discussions that produced the following insights:

  • At the start of any cooperation between scientists and policymakers, there is a need to jointly identify and frame the problem. All of those who are affected by the causes or consequences of the envisioned transformations should be able to contribute to the process. What for one person is a problem may be an opportunity for another. Careful consideration of both risks and opportunities, and in particular distributional effects, is an essential prerequisite for effective policy advice.
  • The advisory process has to be understood as a mutual learning experience. It is essential that policymakers specify what they expect from the process while also being realistic about the limits of what science can deliver. When systemic knowledge is not enough to understand a problem or develop solutions, it’s often helpful to involve groups of non-scientists (e.g. practitioners) in the process.
  • Scientists should be open about the fact that their findings and insights are partially based on value judgements. Particularly in the case of complex issues, they cannot purport to be an impartial and objective vanguard of truth. Instead, they should portray themselves as serving the common good and make explicit the value judgements and context that shape their results. The use of scientific knowledge for the benefit of society is a more powerful antidote to fake news than lofty claims of objectivity.
  • Trust is facilitated by clarity about means and ends, transparent procedures, and public accountability for scientific output.
  • In many collaborations between scientists, policymakers and societal actors, mediators are essential to facilitate mutual understanding. They can help to smooth out identity issues, translate concepts, identify areas of tension, and, if necessary, arbitrate by detecting common ground and building on that.
  • Large scientific institutions should extend their focus from research to the entire education process by creating incentives for researchers at various levels to acquire both research and communication skills.
  • Policymakers often need to hear a single story that people can relate to. National and international research and cultural institutions should strive to produce such coherent narratives as an output of discursive processes.
  • In certain cases, there may be valid reasons for limiting the transparency of science-policy processes (breach of secrecy or loss of face). “Science diplomacy” is often called for in collaborations between scientists, policymakers and societal actors. This is legitimate as long as the actors can be held accountable for the outcomes.
  • There is a need for a global trust fund to support transformation research. This would allow scientists to explore critical questions with private-sector funding, while avoiding the risk of greenwashing by individual companies.
  • The speed with which Academies of Science respond to requests for different types of scientific advice is often too slow for policy purposes. For that reason, other structures or organisations, such as a council of chief scientific advisors, may provide a useful alternative.

The event took place online from 14 to 16 October 2020 and was hosted by the IASS and Arizona State University (ASU). It was financed by the Volkswagen Foundation supported by the Science Advice for Policy by European Academies (SAPEA). The IASS plans to hold the fourth Global Sustainability Strategy Forum next year.

Further information:

The following people participated in the third Global Sustainability Strategy Forum:

Andrej Heinke, Vice President, Corporate Foresight and Megatrends, Robert Bosch GmbH, Germany

Anand Patwardhan, Visiting professor, Center for Water Cycle, Marine Environment and Disaster Management (CWMD), Kumamoto University, USA

Coleen Vogel, Distinguished Professor, Global Change Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Flavio Lira, Fellow IASS, Germany

Gary Dirks, Senior Director, Global Futures Laboratory and Director, LightWorks, Arizona State University, USA, former CEO of BP in Asia, USA

Heide Hackmann, CEO, International Science Council (ISC), France

Hein Mallee, Professor, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Kyoto; Director, Regional Centre for Future Earth in Asia, Japan

Jennifer Helgeson, National Institute of Standards and Technology, USA

Joerg Mayer-Ries, Head of Division Sustainable Development Policy, Citizen Participation; Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Germany

Joyeeta    Gupta, Professor of Environment and Development in the Global South at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam and IHE Institute for Water Education in Delft, The Netherlands

Kensuke Fukushi, Professor and Vice Director, Institute for Future Initiatives, The University of Tokyo, Japan

Marcel Bursztyn, Professor, University of Brasilia, Center for Sustainable Development, Brazil

Milan Chen, Risk Society and Policy Research Center, National Taiwan University, Taiwan

Marie-Valentine Florin, Managing Director at IRGC Foundation & Executive Director at EPFL International Risk Governance Center, Switzerland

Nicole de Paula, Fellow at IASS, Founder Women Leaders for Planetary Health, Germany

Norio Okada, Professor Emeritus of Kyoto University; Adviser, Institute of Disaster Area Revitalization, Regrowth and Governance (IDiARRG), Kwansei Gakuin University; Visiting professor, Center for Water Cycle, Marine Environment and Disaster Management (CWMD), Kumamoto University, Japan

Parul Kumar, Fellow at IASS, Germany

Peter Schlosser, Vice President and Vice Provost of Global Futures, Arizona State University, USA

Pierre Glynn, Participating on personal level, USA

Rita Süssmuth, Patron of the GSSF, Former President German Parliament, Germany

Silke Bertram, VW Förderreferentin, Germany

Toby Wardman, Head of Communications SAPEA, Belgium

Viola Gerlach, Academic Advisor to Professor Ortwin Renn at IASS, Germany

Xuemei Bai, Professor, Australian National University, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australia


Ilan Chabay, Joana Leitao, Ortwin Renn (all IASS), Sander van der Leeuw (Arizona State University)

3rd Global Sustainability Strategy Forum