New Questions for a New Decade

A recent study on knowledge gaps regarding people-nature relationships offers a glimpse into what sustainability and conservation research might look like in the coming years, showing a possible shift in research priorities. While the functioning of social-ecological systems will remain an important focus, indigenous and local knowledge for the sustainable use and management of nature’s contributions to people are set to increase in importance in future research.

Changes in the importance of policy-relevant knowledge gaps for achieving sustainability from 2005 to 2018
according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform
for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (Mastrangelo et al. 2019, 5).

In the study by Mastrangelo et al. (2019) published at the end of last year, a group of social-ecological systems researchers from all over the world identify 708 knowledge gaps and assess their relevance for global sustainability goals. The paper draws on recent assessments by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The authors reveal a lack of knowledge in more than 30 thematic fields, seven of which were considered policy-relevant in order to achieve sustainability.

Knowledge gaps identified to be relevant for policy are complex, multi-scalar and interlinked. They range from feedbacks between social and ecological systems to the role of indigenous and local knowledge for sustainable use and management of nature’s contribution to people (see all of the seven policy relevant knowledge gaps in the figure above). When comparing these knowledge gaps with those identified by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 15 years ago, valuable lessons can be learned. Indeed, it appears that the overall agenda of sustainability science is changing. Some gaps like knowledge on governance effectiveness continue to be relevant. Others, such as the temporal dynamics of ecological change seem to have been addressed between the two assessments, as their importance has decreased over time. Additionally, previously neglected fields of research such as the role of indigenous and local knowledge currently experience a boost in relevance and thus in attention. 

Arguably, the identification of policy relevant knowledge gaps is a crucial first step towards a more sustainable future. Major tools for sustainable development like the Aichi Biodiversity Targets or the Sustainable Development Goals build on a scientific foundation that informs their objectives and shapes their focus. Given the fast pace of change in worldwide social-ecological dynamics, up-to-date research therefore plays a crucial role in the formulation of new targets – and vice versa: Assessing the progress for achieving sustainability and revealing remaining knowledge gaps can help with the identification of central themes in which research can contribute most prominently to environmental integrity and social justice. 

The new decade brings many challenges – but also many new  opportunities. Target-oriented, purposeful research can support sustainable development by addressing current knowledge gaps and can generate new insights into how to move towards a desirable future of sustainability and equity. The synthesis by Mastrangelo et al. (2019) on knowledge gaps thus is a starting point for sustainability research to rethink its objectives and priorities. 

To find out more, take a look at the original paper by Mastrangelo et al. (2019) here.


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