Columnists: Ruth Mourik, DuneWorks

Published on: 13 Jun 2017

Free our minds!

Last week I had to make a difficult decision. My childhood home is going to be sold, my mother is getting too old to hold on to it. It is a beautiful and very big old farmhouse in the North of the Netherlands, one kilometer from the sea. The beautiful sand dunes can be seen from the kitchen. I had to decide whether or not to sell my own house in the south of the Netherlands and leave a lot behind and buy my mother’s house and move north. It was a difficult decision, not only because of all the emotions, but also because the farmhouse is situated in a reclaimed area, and therefore 6 meters below sea level. And I realized that if I want to create a legacy for my kids and grandchildren, buying a home that might be under water within a few decades might not be the best investment. Actually, predictions have shown that in a few decades the city where I live now might become the new sea shore. Suddenly the stories we all know about rising sea levels and disappearing countries and cities by the shore came home.  The sense of urgency that I already felt, but in a more detached form, became very personal. And this connected to a rising frustration I feel these past years.

Like many of you I am explicitly trying to put theory to practice, actively contributing to the transition to a more sustainable world, in particular with respect to energy. I am a researcher by origin, and try to provide both research based solutions to practice, and to inform research with empirical experience. In this role of researcher working on the ground and trying to be a doer.  But I more and more experience the tension between on the one hand the requirements from the scientific system and on the other hand the real-life needs of real-life people or stakeholders on the ground.

Therefore, I would like to invite you to start a discussion around the following question: is the rigid scientific system around publications, research set up and theme selection perhaps making it almost impossible for those researchers that would like to contribute to practice? And is the rigidity of the scientific system perhaps also making it too difficult for practitioners to access the relevant scientific knowledge and know-how of researchers?  

The scientific system underpinning energy related social sciences and humanities has a whole set of safeguards in place against paradigm shifts. Safeguards dealing with peer reviewed publishing, hypothesizing, creating statistically relevant outputs, experimenting, randomly controlled trials, and more. This means that knowledge and outputs are tested in multiple ways before being accepted in the scientific community. It means that a claim for innovation is being sent back from peer-review with the request to embed it in existing theoretical discussions, referencing all those that have said something that is related to the claim. It implies that a paper without much references, mostly based on empirical material is likely to be rejected. And it implies that any qualitative and or empirical paper needs to be able to demonstrate a serious scientific methodology for the set-up of for example a pilot. It also means that many researchers are forced to publish in preferred journals, listed as target journals by their research institute.

Now, you might ask if it is really necessary to loosen some of the safeguards to enable researchers to more easily connect with the real-life challenges and people on the ground. Yes, I think it is. So much of what we need to know to effectively combat energy related challenges and climate change is still not really understood. For example, how to create more sustainable consumption and production patterns is potentially one of the most complex challenges we face. And so many actions on the ground lack insight in and use of the methods that science can provide to help them become really effective, or replicable.

Those of us working on the ground, trying to put theory into practice, in addition are confronted with the need for more speed, bigger change, and more messy approaches. Residents, housing corporations, municipalities and other stakeholders simply need more comfortable and healthy homes or buildings, better cities, a self-sustaining island, or safe places and dry feet. Many real-life users are not interested in whether the pilot they are in has a random controlled trial, or in being the lab environment for new technologies that need to be beta tested. Or having to wait several months before the researchers involved have designed the scientifically best methodology for implementation. Of course it is fantastic when scientific participation allows the testing of all kinds of solutions in a neighborhood for example. However, in practice the scientific and or technological goals often are not really aligned with the real need of users, but the scientific goals often prevail nonetheless.

Especially when the action on the ground was initiated from a sense of urgency to mitigate the effects of climate change, such as heat stress, or inundations, or when they are trying to retrofit those homes in dire need of weatherisation. The speed of pilots, publications and other scientific contributions is often felt as too slow by practitioners feeling a strong sense of urgency.  

The scientific safeguards might create researchers that are leading in the scientific community, but at best they are lagging behind on the ground, or worse, they are not even known because they are only read in the scientific arena. As mentioned in a recent blog by Andrew Hoffman called ‘In praise of ‘B’ Journals’, the way of publishing only in A listed journals is not good for the scientific advancement either, as it is more about establishing an academic pecking order instead of pursuing knowledge. And in any case the system as it is now is too slow to really help combat climate change, and allowing mainly incremental innovation when we need big transformations.

So, I believe it is time to invite the scientific system to reevaluate itself so that those researchers willing to contribute on the ground in a meaningful way can do so. For one simple reason: climate change is here and its effects are severe and very real and we need to act now and do everything we can. And we need all on board, all those bright minds out there.

We need scientists that are allowed to work in this in between space, a boundary space between research and practice.  I feel this is where we can make a difference. They need be allowed to experiment and focus on doing new research, explore new themes, irrespective of whether that research and theme will fit the A listed high impact journals preferred by their universities or feed into the state of the art of the mainstream theoretical discussion in their field. We need scientists that have the time and space to work on the issues that need solving, and do not need to focus on issues that are dictated by financiers, and do not have to spend most of their research time reiterating previous findings to have as many publications as possible because otherwise they would get fired or miss out on tenure or promotion because of an overly zealous publish or perish system. We need a scientific system that allows and even encourages (connected to tenure and promotion) its researchers to also publish in journals that might not be seen as theoretically A listed, but that are actually read by those people on the ground contributing to combatting energy challenges and climate change. We need a system that allows researchers to do empirical work on the ground. We also need journals that are less theory driven and focused on quantitative analysis, and more open access to non-scientists. We need a system that allows for empirical and qualitative contributions that do not necessarily fit the scientific way of doing things in terms of referencing or methodological section, but do provide interesting knowledge and challenge existing theories, and advance public and important societal debates. Wouldn’t it be great if some journals dared include out of the box sections where totally new thinking can be published, without the need to kill too much innovative thinking for lack of suitable references? But it is not only the publishing system that needs reevaluation. The system of financing, reporting and evaluating also needs to allow for more messy and emphasizes less the need for quantifiable but often irrelevant outputs, as is the case e.g. in the Horizon2020 scheme. Finally, we need a more speedy system, especially with respect to publishing, because as it is now, any high impact publication has hardly any contribution to make to real life which moved on in between… Think how much more effective we could become at combatting the serious dangers facing us and the planet if more researchers would be facilitated to join us in this boundary space!  I know we are several already, and in practice many researchers try to join already, but the rigid scientific system and its structures is obdurate and is lagging behind. Researchers need space to play and contribute to evidence based work on the ground and in policymaking, instead of scientifically based evidence making. So I implore: free our researchers, and help me save my family home from the sea!



The views expressed in this column are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the views of eceee or any of its members.

Other columns by Ruth Mourik

Jan 2020