Doing interdisciplinary research on development and the environment: critical reflections on SUM’s experience

Doing interdisciplinary research on development and the environment: critical reflections on SUM’s experience

Academic experiences of interdisciplinary research

This paper presents the experiences which the Centre for Development and the Environment (SUM) of the University of Oslo has gained from the last 10 years of undertaking interdisciplinary research on development and environment.

Lessons learned are:

  • the link from research to policy does not, in practice, proceed according to a linear, rational model, based simply on reliable ‘evidence’ - but researchers can nevertheless have much to contribute to policy-making
  • papers in academic journals are what researchers are primarily motivated to write, and these are necessary to test and maintain their academic standards. But they are not what policy-makers need – for them a different medium is required
  • it is important that university-based researchers base their engagement with policy-makers on an adequate degree of competence and expertise in the issue concerned
  • researchers can and should be critical - both of theories and of policies; but this need not discourage them from actively engaging with the practical issues that confront society
  • there is not a simple poverty-environment link implying win-win solutions; the relationship between economic growth and environmental degradation is complex, and some of the assumed environmental problems (such as desertification) may be misunderstood, or even be revealed as ‘myths’
  • in fact, affluence may, in many respects, be a greater threat to the environment than poverty; and the costs of environmental degradation tend to fall unequally on poor and rich countries, and on poor and rich within countries
  • institutions matter: although technological innovation can help meet the challenge of sustainable development, changes in human behaviour will have a crucial role to play
  • thus, sustainable development is a political, ethical, social issue as much as it is a technical issue. More research therefore needs to be done in the ‘soft’ sciences - concerning norms, cultural values, political processes, and ‘institutions’ in the wider sense of the word.
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