Newsletter #1 March 2008

Is there a trade-off between excellence and relevance?

berkhoutThe demands made on a modern environmental researcher are greater than ever. Not only must (s)he publish in the best journals, (s)he has to raise funding against ever fiercer competition and (s)he has to play a part in the keen public debates about global change and the environment. You may feel pity, but you may also feel excited. It’s the second of these emotions I tend to feel.
At IVM we feel the pressure to combine scientific excellence with societal relevance every day. I say combine, rather than balance, because – if you get it right – these two things go together and amplify each other. In 2007 IVM’s research was evaluated by an international commission as part of a general evaluation of groups doing social and natural science research on the environment at Dutch universities (members of the SENSE Research School). This followed similar exercises in 1995 and 2000.
The 2007 SENSE evaluation shows that Dutch environmental studies are in rude health and that within this context; IVM again stands out as one of the leaders. The report states that:
‘…IVM fulfills its mission well because it makes a substantial contribution to applied research in support of strategy development and identifying emerging issues. It continues to be a pioneer in multi-disciplinary approaches, especially regarding the human dimensions of global change…’
While we were extremely happy to get an excellent review, it also made us think again about our broader mission and purpose.
Research evaluations are by now a universal feature of academic life, and they serve the healthy purpose of providing independent assessments of our overall performance. But these evaluations present many institutes, including IVM, with a predicament. Whether in The Netherlands or elsewhere, the focus on scientific quality and productivity has grown markedly in these evaluations, and university boards have become interested primarily in the scores we achieve on these criteria. At the VU University things are no different. And the rise of internet databases like the Web of Science and Scopus makes it easier to conduct comparative analysis of publication performance. We now have PhD students who know the impact factors of all the journals in their field and colleagues who do a monthly check on their h-index!
The challenge for multi-disciplinary and outward-facing institutes like IVM (our mission says that we want to contribute to sustainable development through research and teaching), is to show that our core values of academic breadth and engagement continue to complement a commitment to scientific excellence. I want to put forward four arguments why I believe this to be true today, more than ever. First, many of the most interesting research questions in sustainability science are generated at the intersection between science and society. To give one example of a question I am personally interested in – what should be the role of public policy in adaptation to climate change? This is not a question that a researcher disengaged from the real world may have considered interesting, nor is there an answer that can be derived from the theoretical principles in a single discipline alone. But the results of research into the subject will produce fundamental new knowledge, while also having an impact on the way the world works.
Second, at IVM we take seriously the challenge of the co-production of knowledge about sustainability. Societal partners play a critical role in much of our research: in defining questions; as participants in the research process; and as collaborators in dialogues around research results and their significance.  Without this interaction, our knowledge would be impoverished. Third, society expects its large investments in science to generate useful knowledge that will help in the search for solutions to the big social questions; health, security, climate and so on. How and when a new knowledge claim becomes useful may be hard to pin down, but we know as scientists that we will be held accountable for the kinds of questions we try to answer, not just by our scientific peers, but also by society at large. We also know that the demand for societal relevance acts as a stimulus in defining, and funding, new research agendas. Finally, only by doing good science are we given licence to be socially-relevant. In October 2007 we heard that seven IVMers had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their contributions over the years to the four assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). They had all been invited to take part because of their leadership as scientists.
Perhaps then, we are asking the wrong question. The issue is not so much whether there is a trade-off, but how we can make the most of the creative energy that comes out of allowing the disciplines, stakeholders and researchers to rub shoulders with each other. For IVM, 2008 provides us with another chance to work the magic that produces great science which matters. 
Frans Berkhout