Linking politics and research has never been more necessary

In June this year, the leaders of more than 50 Commonwealth nations set out a major new commitment to joint action on climate change, biodiversity loss and sustainable land use.

The Living Lands Charter points, among other things, to the growing vulnerability of the Earth’s extraordinary and diverse systems of life-support – its mangroves and marshes, forests, oceans and savannahs.

Yet these life-sustaining, interconnected systems also offer a model for how the threats to our planet can best be tackled: a global knowledge ecosystem through which the expertise of diverse nations, cultures and communities feeds directly into policy and action, and where collaboration, co-creation and the transdisciplinary exchange of knowledge are a mainstay.

Higher education is a cornerstone of this knowledge ecosystem. Universities make a vital contribution to solving global challenges and are critical to meeting all 17 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Working across boundaries

University research, in particular, is playing a pivotal role in protecting people and planet – from the restoration of degraded soils to the development of drought-resistant crops. But if this knowledge ecosystem is to thrive, it requires all of us to work together across boundaries, borders and disciplines.

University research, for example, can inject much-needed evidence into public policy. And yet the well-documented disconnect between universities and policy-makers holds true. This means that research data and evidence doesn’t always get through to where it’s needed and that vital expertise may go unheard.

While linking the world of research with the world of politics has never been straightforward, closer connections between the two have never been more necessary.

Also crucial to this ecosystem are local and indigenous communities, whose practices, values and traditions often embody more just and sustainable ways of seeing and relating to the natural world.

Indeed, the Living Lands Charter underlines the critical stewardship of the natural world already provided by indigenous peoples around the world and their deep connections to the land. By working in reciprocal partnership with their communities, universities can not only integrate local expertise into their research but can work as one to co-create solutions that work for everyone.

Funders and institutions, meanwhile, must also put the equitable exchange of knowledge at the heart of how they fund, design and think about research. This includes supporting projects that have the two-way exchange between researchers and the intended users of their research enshrined within their design and purpose or designing programmes that create a shift in research culture towards greater engagement with the public and policy-makers.

Above all, our knowledge ecosystem must reflect the fundamental truth that global challenges demand global solutions.

The economist Jeffrey Frankel argues that the three most important things needed to tackle our climate crisis are science, public policy and international cooperation, and we believe that organisations like the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) bridge all three.

Translating knowledge into policy

With over 500 member universities across 50 countries, the ACU is the only Commonwealth organisation to represent higher education. Our network, and close relationship with international governments, means we are uniquely placed to promote collaboration between universities, governments and society, which in turn can help to translate knowledge into policy and practice.

One example is the Climate Impacts Research Capacity and Leadership Enhancement (CIRCLE) programme led by the ACU with funding from the United Kingdom government.

CIRCLE took a multi-pronged approach: supporting individual scientists in their search for local solutions, while working in tandem with their universities to strengthen their institutional capacity to support and promote research.

Training and funding were made available to all researchers to help them engage decision-makers and intended users in their work, making public engagement and knowledge exchange a core part of the programme’s lifecycle.

Participants tell us that this approach is already helping them to reach those who can benefit from their research. In Ghana, for example, CIRCLE researcher Mercy Derkyi is helping agricultural communities affected by dwindling rainfall to learn from farmers in the savannah region who have a history of cultivating in dry conditions.

Meanwhile, in the oil-producing regions of south-east Nigeria, Doris Akachukwu visits rural communities with practical advice on how to restore heavily polluted soil to life.

Public engagement was also a key element of the ACU’s Blue Charter Fellowships, which, as well as supporting research into marine pollution, trained researchers in how to explain their work in concise and engaging terms to different audiences.

Living Lands Fellowships

Our proposed Living Lands Fellowships will take this one step further: embedding university researchers at the very heart of the Charter’s action groups to strengthen the flow of vital evidence and technical expertise to where it’s needed most, and supporting the co-creation of research between universities, government and industry.

Meanwhile, the ACU’s Commonwealth Climate Resilience Network brings universities – many of which are on the frontline of climate change – together to share practical knowledge and experience of building resilience on their campuses, in their communities and beyond.

With the breadth, reach and diversity of the Commonwealth as its life force, and these frameworks for collaboration in place, our knowledge ecosystem has every potential to turn the ambitions of the Living Lands Charter into reality. Its success, however, rests on how well its different parts work together.

Dr Joanna Newman is CEO and secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.