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Sustainable development policies need scientific support

What is the role of scientific support in sustainable development policies?


Roope Kaaronen

Trainee, Foresight


Sustainable development is perhaps the greatest challenge of our time. Therefore, sustainable development policies also deserve scientific support of the highest possible quality. After all, even in a world of growing complexity, science still remains our best guess.

Unfortunately, the development of science–policy interfaces, both nationally and globally, has often been completely omitted in sustainable development policy-making and policy documents.

In a recent study I addressed the role of scientific support in sustainable development policies. Reflecting back on my work, at least three central themes spring to mind.

First, scientific support is absolutely essential for sustainable development policies. It is disheartening to think that the future of our global and national societies is often dependent on the gut feeling of decision-makers, whilst our scientific communities possess plenty of untapped expertise and knowledge relevant for policy-making.

However, this is not merely a political or structural issue. Scientists themselves must also find the courage to venture out of their specific fields of expertise and develop integrative sustainability policies with decision-makers and stakeholders.

Second, scientific support is fragile and particularly vulnerable to political turbulence. Numerous international examples highlight how, for instance, new ministerial and governmental appointments have resulted in the shutting down of expert panels, commissions, networks and councils for sustainable development. The reasoning behind the abolishing of an advisory group might be as mundane as its support for carbon tax. Therefore, scientific support should not be taken for granted, and should be designed particularly with resilience in mind.

Third, there is no single right way to organise scientific support. Different contexts call for different structures. What is important, however, is that even though scientific knowledge is intrinsically valuable, scientific support must also be socially robust. This entails not only scientific rigour, but also acceptability, comprehensibility and applicability in the social and political environment. Merely speaking truth to people in power is not sufficient. Support must also be inclusive, activating and capable of dialogue and conflict resolution.

Sustainable development requires that various – sometimes even conflicting – perspectives are taken into account. Therefore, scientific support should be multifaceted. Fortunately, there is an exceptionally broad variety of organisations working at the interface of science, society and policy in Finland. Yet this diversity is only a richness once these sustainability advocates acknowledge each other’s unique roles and working methods and collaboratively strive towards a comprehensively sustainable society.

Piecing this puzzle of science–policy–society interfaces together is one of the central challenges in advancing our national sustainable development policy.

In case you are interested in finding out more on how scientific support has been organised for sustainable development policies in different countries, please read my study Scientific Support for Sustainable Development Policies: A Typology of Science–Policy Interfaces with Case Studies. The main findings of my study can also be found in the following slideshow.

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Scientific support for sustainable development policies from Sitra / Ekologinen kestävyys

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