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Science for Change: A Survey on the Normative and Political Dimensions of Global Sustainability Research

van der Hel, Sandra. 2018. Science for change: A survey on the normative and political dimensions of global sustainability research. Global Environmental Change, 52: 248-258.


Global change and sustainability research increasingly focusses on informing and shaping societal transformations towards more sustainable futures. Doing so, researchers encounter the deeply political and normative dimensions of sustainability problems and potential solutions. This raises questions about the value-dimensions of science itself, as well as the appropriate relationship between science and politics. In this paper, these normative and political dimensions of sustainability research are explored based on a literature review and survey. The survey was completed by 284 researchers participating in the international research platform Future Earth: Research for Global Sustainability. The analysis of survey data reveals that sustainability researchers generally acknowledge the value-laden and political nature of their work, yet perspectives on what this means and how to deal with such dimensions vary. Four groups of respondents are distinguished and classified by the following broad narratives: transformative research as speaking truth to power, transformative research as political act, responsibility for rigorous science, and humility on solutions potential. Several tensions within and between these perspectives are identified, pertaining to the role of sustainability researchers in supporting societal transformations, the possibility and desirability of scientific independence and impartiality, and the appropriate relationship between science and politics. The paper concludes by pointing to the need for more explicit engagement with the normative and political dimensions of sustainability research.

The article is available here.

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