How norms, needs, and power in science obstruct transformations towards sustainability

Lahsen, Myanna; Turnhout, Esther


After decades of inadequate responses to scientists' warnings about global environmental threats, leading analysts of the science-policy interface are seeking an important shift of research focus. This switch is from continued modeling and diagnoses of biogeochemical conditions in favor of enhanced efforts to understand the many socio-political obstacles to achieving just transformations towards sustainability, and how to overcome them. We discuss why this shift continues to prove elusive. We argue that rarely analyzed mutually reinforcing power structures, interests, needs, and norms within the institutions of global environmental change science obstruct rethinking and reform. The blockage created by these countervailing forces are shielded from scrutiny and change through retreats behind shields of neutrality and objectivity, stoked and legitimated by fears of losing scientific authority. These responses are maladaptive, however, since transparency and reflexivity are essential for rethinking and reform, even in contexts marked by anti-environmentalism. We therefore urge greater openness, self-critique, and power-sharing across research communities, to create spaces and support for conversations, diverse knowledges, and decisions conducive to sustainability transformations.