Climate Commission: how can the sector harness the power of research to propel climate action?

Climate Commission: how can the sector harness the power of research and innovation to propel climate action?

This blog post was written by Sonya Peres on behalf of the Climate Commission secretariat. 

UK colleges and universities are equipped with an array of strengths to tackle the climate emergency. As a sector, we are adaptable, diverse and influential. Importantly, we are inquisitive.

Our ability to collect and analyse data to understand life’s challenges and to produce effective solutions is an asset to global climate action. As the Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education mobilises the sector to produce a cohesive response to the climate emergency, an important part of the work involves understanding how to harness the power of the UK’s climate research and innovation to take collective action against the climate breakdown.

I spoke with institutional and student Climate Commissioners Professor Judith Petts (Vice-Chancellor of the University of Plymouth) and Marta Crispo (PhD Candidate at the Grantham Institute for Sustainable Futures) about the power of climate research and its role in our response to the climate emergency.

A Fine Balance

The climate breakdown is a complicated, multi-dimensional beast and rightfully, the sector’s climate research spans disciplines. Both Commissioners acknowledge the sector’s ability to capture and understand the crisis’ broad ranging issues. Marta relays how science research has uncovered the complexities of the crisis, like the greenhouse effect, highlighting that it “makes visible what was invisible.” Professor Petts points to the important work of social, economic and behavioural sciences in supporting governments and economies in engaging with climate change mitigation and adaptation.

At the Commission’s evidence gathering event on research and innovation, expert witnesses also praise the robust, multidisciplinary climate research conducted across the sector. However, the climate crisis is multi-faceted and research that may contribute to climate action is vast and can be difficult to pin down. To maximise the impact of the sector’s work, experts encourage enhancing our collective understanding of the extent of climate research.

Expert witnesses note that we must find a delicate balance between top-down coordinated climate research and discrete, competitive work. As climate research takes many shapes and forms, some sort of formal coordination of our voice and the messages coming out of research centres can efficiently harness our power to effect change through policy and an increase in climate awareness amongst the wider public. Although, we must not lose sight of the innovation and nuance that can stem from competition.

In response to these suggestions, the Climate Commission has begun work mapping climate research centres across the UK to develop understanding of climate research and to coordinate a shared message on climate action.

Letting the Science Speak

To maximise the impact of research and innovation on climate action, we must focus not just on what we discover, but how we communicate our findings and translate our discoveries into action and awareness. Judith and Marta mention the important role the sector plays in communicating research to students, policymakers and the wider public. Marta emphasises the importance of how “researchers ingeniously and creatively communicate findings to the students, policymakers and the wider public,” adding that because of the sector’s research communications, “many of us today are able to characterise some of the causes and consequences of climate change.”

Judith expresses concern for teaching, education and the graduates who will inherit the changing planet should climate research be under-resourced, under-utilised or ineffectively communicated. Pointing to the influence research has on education and curricula, she states, “lack of attention to climate research will weaken the impact on the learning and the development of young people in general and of graduates in particular.”

Accessibly translating climate research is crucial to responses outside of, but also within the sector. For Judith, translating climate research is important for the development of colleges and universities themselves. She mentions how climate research “informs and energises” institutional strategies, adding that “the leadership that climate and environment researchers provide to institutional strategy development and monitoring is paramount.”

Similarly, expert witnesses acknowledge that we also have to look inwards and apply our understanding and sustainability recommendations to our research processes to make our climate research, well, climate friendly. Sector and research funding bodies play a role in greening research processes, particularly through the way funding is awarded, advertised and evaluated, as well as in grant conditions. UKRI’s recent Sustainability Strategy will achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from their owned operations by 2040 and in the meantime, embed sustainability values in their investments and develop and adopt approaches to tackle carbon-intensive research practices including international air travel. The sector is evidently making advances in ensuring sustainable research processes, and we need to continue this work cohesively and quickly.

Additionally, some expert witnesses see the sector’s role in COVID-19 as a “master class” on how research can be communicated in a clear, coherent way to the wider public and government officials. As evidence-based information on the pandemic and guidance is made relatively accessible across the country, they suggest capturing this momentum to “let the science speak” on climate action. The Commission’s mapping work includes capturing how research centres disseminate their findings to deepen our understanding and drive impact by supporting research to more efficiently feed into policy and NGO strategies.

Lastly, Commissioners and experts agree that the sector can and should continue to contribute its high-quality research to global climate action. For Judith, this means continuing to play a key role in international collaborations given the sector’s globally leading data collection and analysis. For expert witnesses, this work can be enhanced by improving our shared understanding and awareness of international research frameworks.

If we fail to harness the power of UK climate research, Marta believes the sector will be accountable for the severe consequences of the climate crisis. Judith believes a failure can undermine the sector’s role in knowledge production and exchange, education, and as trusted powerhouses in local and global economies and communities. We must work to ensure our voice as leaders in climate research and innovation is loud and our message clear and that our research processes are sustainable so as to not negate our climate action.

Research is our strength, let’s play to it.
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