New academic models for planetary health

Universities around the world are marketing themselves both as the place where complex problems are solved, and as places that tackle gender and other forms of discrimination seriously, where flexible hours, inclusive practices and non-traditional pathways are welcomed.
Published in Sustainability
New academic models for planetary health
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Countless global programmes are encouraging more girls into Science with a promise of a fulfilling, balanced career where their knowledge can make an impact and inspire women for generations to come. Yet, the dominant solutions to complex problems like climate change remain limited by the boundaries of gender and privilege. 

We highlight three persistent problems in academia that are major impediments to how sustainable solutions to climate change are imagined and implemented around the world. In doing so, we advocate for new models of thinking which will require opening the hallowed halls of academia to inspire the fusion of scholarship with place-based practice and experiential diversity. 

Metrics of success in academia remain conservative and rooted in traditional selection processes: Those who typically succeed in academia do so through a narrow lens of performance indicators that are based on a foundation of privilege.  Those promoted – in both position and in power of voice - are more likely to have had access to remarkable education, and to have had uninterrupted progression through their training.  Tertiary education relies on publication and research metrics that require vast amounts of uninterrupted time. While women can and do successfully create this time – long standing entrenched gender roles influencing domestic and caring relationships and the diverse experiences that are incidental to traditional career progression are still not reflected in academic expectations.  Domestic and caring duties also intersect with cultural norms, and can work against  men who eschew traditional gender expectations. These elements conspire to narrow the academic 'type' most likely to succeed  on metrics. This success is self-perpetuating, as ‘successful’ academics (often unwittingly) preference a next generation of scholars who look, think, and act as they do (1){White-Lewis., 2020 #87}{White-Lewis., 2020 #87}{White-Lewis., 2020 #87}. This framework of employment, training, of knowledge and reward is open to challenge – and yet change remains slow.

Based on meritocracy, the scholarly superiority of academia has a long tradition based on the presumption that high intellectual achievement translates to deepest knowledge (2). This tradition promotes individuals within academia and organisations – individuals who have been dominantly male and privileged. Moreover, a continued reliance on compounding metrics curtails the likelihood of ‘success’ for those arriving at academia not through the standard institutional pathway, but via a different vocation at a different life-stage -  alternative journeys representing a rich plurality of worldviews, perspectives, and experiences. Complex challenges such as climate change require different approaches to knowledge, to power and to learning. Interdependent relationships and experiential diversity will be integral to climate change solutions, and provide richer insights than the siloed approach engrained across much academic structure.

The pervasive academic belief that research trumps practitioner knowledge and lived experience : In some pockets of policy, recognition of the value of diverse experience based on identity, experience, relationships and social factors has begun (3). In climate change policy this rich lens should inform collaborative, diverse approaches to complex problems but as yet, there is no established space within academia for those women that have generations of front-line knowledge in how to deal with climate change.

The traditional academic privileged view is unlikely to provide adequate insight for the challenges ahead with increasingly clear risks deriving not just from climate change, but from other major threats such as zoonotic diseases, technological changes, and geopolitical tension.  A problem-solving approach that is inclusive and diverse is more likely to explore ideas that are appropriate within communities, and find solutions that are fit-for purpose in place and time. Truly collaborative, place-based research faces its own series of systemic challenges. Short funding cycles and a heavy reliance on contract work undermine the necessary groundwork establishing relationships and trust across communities and across academic disciplines. An emphasis on producing short-term results comes at the expense of long-term interests and the public good.

As we develop policies and approaches to climate change adaptation and mitigation to reduce the health impacts we are encouraged to take an ‘evidence-based approach’.  To do this we must understand the structure of our evidence base, which mostly comes from our historical assumption that knowledge must be based on recognised (Western) scientific knowledge – traditionally with a statistically significant p-value (4).  It is a search for the ‘right answer’, a powerful form of knowledge that defines the paradigms in which we search for questions and their answers, often based on research and data, or based on power or recognised expertise.  This model allows some voices to dominate the conversation and the solutions – in academia and policy expertise comes from access to research time, resources and networks–elements which are often highly gendered.

While science is essential to understand the world, diverse views, lived experiences and including different knowledge systems are particularly essential as we plan for a complex future. A monocular view on our past will not adequately predict the impacts of a future that will challenge our imagination with unprecedented extreme weather events that increase in severity and intensity. Our adaptive capacity is seriously constrained by this often reductionist approach to what constitutes a ‘robust evidence base’.

A funding system that entrenches traditional hierarchical and reductionist models of thinking: Understanding the complex system that is human civilisation – the origin of anthropomorphic climate change and its ‘solution’ - means that there won’t be a unifying solution, no one ‘right answer’. Applying this dominant reductionist approach to complex problems both entrenches the power of a single academic voice and prevents diverse participation in complex problem solving. It also centres conversation around a single approach rather than fostering more diversity of ideas.  The challenge is not just in the structure of academic research but in the power relationships that surround this; power between professor and student, power of political leaders and governments over communities.  Flattening this often deeply hierarchical and supplicant power structure – for a diversity of views and voices – better prepares communities for the changing face of our planet with climate change.

The language of climate action is based on constructs from the last few hundred years. Concepts of economics: productivity, efficiency, growth based on rational behaviour from the all-knowing privileged ideas of certainty and solutions. And yet each element of this framework has been challenged through systematic approaches such as wellbeing, planetary boundaries, and psychological literature on how people behave and care for each other.

Again, diversity is critical to the potency of these challenges. If the dominant language of climate action lacks the lexicon to articulate what is at risk (5), we limit our ability to imagine alternative futures and how to get there (6).       

As the ‘single answer’ reductionist approach is challenged there is a gradual realisation that the journey is as important as the destination.  If there is no ‘right answer’ to net-zero, to planetary life which is more than 2-degrees above the long-term average, perhaps the journey of today and for the years ahead deserves more attention. This requires a radical shift in how we fund and foster the next generation of science and solutions (7).

The road ahead

So in climate and health, what role for transformation of our academic voices? A voice that acknowledges complexity and uncertainty, that explicitly values diversity and representation for voices that are otherwise quiet, perspective that recognises different knowledge frameworks and their value, a voice that is not seeking to ‘answer the question’ but to guide the discussion on a journey that encourages dignity, respect and caring for generations to come.  Because, in the end, the journey might be the part of the solution that matters the most.

References

  1. White-Lewis. DK. The Facade of Fit in Faculty Search Processes. The Journal of Higher Education. 2020.
  2. Collier P, Kay, J. Greed is Dead: Penguin Press; 2021.
  3. United Nations Women. Intersectionality Explained: UN Women Australia; 2018 [Available from: https://unwomen.org.au/our-work/focus-area/intersectionality-explained.
  4. Halsey LG. The reign of the p-value is over: what alternative analyses could we employ to fill the power vacuum? Biology letters. 2019;15(5):20190174.
  5. Albrecht GA. Earth emotions: New words for a new world. : Cornell University Press.; 2019.
  6. Smithsonian magazine. Four Things That Happen When a Language Dies 2017 [Available from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/four-things-happen-when-language-dies-and-one-thing-you-can-do-help-180962188/.
  7. Sun Y, Livan G, Ma A, Latora V. Interdisciplinary researchers attain better long-term funding performance. Communications Physics. 2021;4(1):263.

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