Science-policy interfaces for transformative change? Insights from our innovative session at the Earth System Governance conference


Global calls for transformative change in the face of urgent sustainability challenges are growing increasingly louder, across science, policy and society. Transformations are inherently political, and they should be treated as such by researchers, practitioners and policymakers (Blythe et al., 2018; Scoones et al., 2020). As a science–policy organisation aspiring to contribute to transformative change, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency is interested in the related implications for its own work. Because, arguably, for science–policy organisations to become transformative, they also need to transform their own work methods (Maas, 2023).

In an ‘innovative session’, organised 24 October last, as part of the Earth System Governance conference at Radboud University Nijmegen, we reflected on institutional barriers and ways forward for institutions positioned along the science–policy interface to become transformative. In this blog, we are sharing some of our main results with you, with special thanks to discussants Gijs Diercks (DRIFT), Josie Chambers (UU) and Roberto Rocco (TU Delft).

Add perspective to change

Most people work according to certain habits, they like structure and staying within their comfort zone. Transformative change is about the exact opposite. Conflict and uncertainty are part of the deal, as is giving things up. To make change more tangible, it may help envisioning alternative futures, e.g. using science and art. Instead of an unknown future (a ‘black hole’), clear visions of a changed future show a concrete alternative that can be either resisted or desired. In that way, these visions may also be used as a tool to discuss and explicate the various underlying worldviews.

Embrace the politics of research

Us researchers love to talk about ‘the content’, i.e. the scientific facts and newest insights within our particular fields. However, the production and consumption of knowledge does not occur in a political vacuum. It matters who asks the questions, who uses the outcomes, what methods are used, or for whom a specific research is intended. Transformative change is all about challenging the status quo, meaning these questions are important for commercial and non-commercial knowledge producers alike. Importantly, this also includes the role of universities in training our future researchers, consultants and civil servants, etc.

You’re not alone

Transformative change requires many different types of knowledge, varying from what is happening ‘on the ground’ in specific regions, to systemic dynamics. 'Luckily, the responsibility for all the knowledge production does not need to rest solely on the shoulders of scientists. Together with other knowledge producers, such as consultancies and practitioners, we can combine systemic with specific and abstract with hands-on research and experience. Building relationships is, of course, hard work. In light of the politics mentioned above, it is important to critically consider possible collaboration candidates. And, as for working with communities, building trust takes time — often more than foreseen in scientific or policy projects. Nevertheless, taking the time to do so will also lead to more in-depth discussions and, therefore, to better results. As the saying goes: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’.

Looking ahead

The session proved to be a very interesting exchange of thoughts and experiences with very similar challenges. We learned that our contribution to transformative change depends on a shift away from being a supplier of ‘high status/authoritative’ Science. Instead, PBL would do better to become a supporter of open-ended learning with the people and organisations who either are or could be involved in transformative change in practice — a takeaway message that is hopefully recognisable for other organisations, as well.