Applied Research and the Urban Sustainable Development Goal

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The latest UGEC Viewpoints article comes from long-time UGEC SSC member David Simon.

Introduction:

One of the sea changes in academic life sweeping a growing number of OECD countries is the legitimising of applied research, for so long regarded as the poor relation of ‘pure’ academic research and theorising. Indeed, such research has increasingly been demanded by official and non-governmental funders in the name of ‘relevance’ in recessionary times when theoretical or ‘blue skies’ research has become viewed as frivolous or unaffordable. By contrast, applied research by many academics in the global South has always been normal and perhaps even essential as a supplement to low university salaries. In principle this has given Southern researchers a head start in competitive bidding for such work, especially in partnership with Northern institutions more experienced in the complex bureaucratic grant application stakes.

One aspect of this phenomenon is that researchers are commonly now required to include ‘impact statements’ of how they expect their work to produce measurable outcomes in addition to planned outputs in their funding applications. These statements then form a key part of post-project evaluations. These new applied demands have often caused consternation either at the principle of more narrowly defined research performance criteria or the instrumentality and inappropriateness of some of the required metrics. Perhaps the most extreme form of such top-down prescription is the way in which the 2014 Research Excellent Framework septennial assessment of UK university research comprised one section on impact, which was defined in a way far more suited to linear industrial innovation and production processes than the complexities of social and multi- and transdisciplinary sustainability science, in which unpredictability is a central feature. For a fuller discussion of these issues, see my recent co-authored article, ‘Crossing boundaries: Complex systems, transdisciplinarity and applied impact agendas’ in the journal, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2014.08.007).

Despite these sometimes formidable challenges, ideal opportunities to undertake focused sustainability research which combines intellectual and applied dimensions may present themselves unexpectedly. One example is the process of developing and formulating the set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are intended by the UN to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) from January 2016. Unlike the MDGs, which applied only to poorer countries, annual reporting on the SDG targets by means of sets of indicators for each will be required of all countries. Another innovative feature is the inclusion of a goal (no. 11) addressing urban sustainability, the more significant because it acknowledges the importance of urban dynamics and development to overall national and systemic sustainability. Although because of UN system rules, national governments will be the reporting authorities, local authorities will inevitably play important roles in data collection and upward reporting to the national level.

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