On theorising relationships between research and policy: what might be learnt from reflecting on stupidity, education and the quest for sustainability?

Year: 2018

Author: Reid, Alan, Lysgaard, Jonas

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Stupidity consists in wanting to draw conclusions. (Gustav Flaubert)
In this paper, we illustrate how the nature of certain concepts widely used to regulate research-policy relationships in the field now known as environmental and sustainability education (ESE) has been changing, particularly since the introduction of performance-based research funding systems in the UK and Scandinavia. While the norms behind these concepts and systems have been increasingly hitched to a wagon called “impact”, in the case of ESE, the field’s researchers can find themselves wanting to pursue this differently, but simultaneously, discovering they are also approximately 10-15 years behind other fields in terms of understandings and debates about the “quest for impact”. (This includes capacities to adapt to or challenge its value.) We argue that this is because as Ball and Exley (2010) have quipped, ‘ideas have careers’. In the ‘distinctive and misaligned cultures’ of research and policy, not all are seen to have rigour, relevance or usefulness for policymaking, let alone fostering healthy relationships between these two cultures (Orland, 2009) or are capable of addressing sustainability challenges. Yet as Lotz-Sisitka (2016) argues for ESE practitioners, researchers and policymakers, what is at stake pedagogically and politically is whether it fosters both a sense of the scope and constraints on one’s own and other’s agency, and a willingness to act in ways that foster a more sustainable future. Accordingly, the typical educational expectation is acting differently will be required in most occasions, even if a conclusion cannot be drawn as to what an exact end-in-view is. For ESE researchers, research groups and subfields facing this challenge, we recommend an explicitly two-pronged approach to what can be identified as some of the “stupidities” that have arisen, which misconstrue how research-policy relationships operate in this field. The first involves harnessing short-term tactics that address recent expectations of “impact” originating from policy circles, and the second, developing strategies suited to playing the long game in policy-research relationships. This is because stupidity is not simply reducible to matters of error but rather it may betray failures in capacity to distinguish and communicate what is important from the unimportant. The stakes in this distinction are high. ESE research and researchers can expect to receive more mainstream demands for “impact” particularly when, for example, climate change is argued to be a key matter of concern shaping education policymaking, practices and the researching of ESE during the coming decades.