Twenty-five years ago, the Swedish Government established SEI as an independent, international research institute devoted to bridging science and policy to support sustainable development. The world has changed dramatically since then, yet SEI’s mission is as relevant as ever.

On Wednesday, 22 October, SEI researchers and guests brought that mission to life through stories and images from their work on everything from clean cookstoves, to water economics, to global trade. They also reflected on what it takes to truly bridge science, policy and practice – which, as Cambridge University Prof. Susan Owens noted, is rarely “simple and straightforward”.

HMK Carl XVI Gustaf attended the day-long event with HRH Crown Princess Victoria and offered his congratulations and a call to action.

“In my travels around the world, I see the many positive sides of development but also the many questions we have to address … for the continued well-being of our planet,” the Swedish King said. “The future is still in our hands, and we must take a strong leadership role.”

SEI Research Fellow Magnus Benzie launched the first story-telling session by recounting his visit to Scotland, where he met whisky distillers who are adapting to climate change impacts on the high-grade grain crops they depend on. For Senegal, meanwhile, climate-related crop losses in Asia can hit very close to home, Benzie noted – because most of Senegal’s rice supply is imported from there.

A recurring theme in the stories that followed was that, as SEI Research Fellow Toby Gardner put it, “development options are not always good or bad, black or white”. Assumptions made from half a world away often miss the complexities on the ground: whether they involve smallholders vs. large-scale agribusiness on the edge of the Amazon rainforest, or China’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Gardner, who focuses on agricultural development, deforestation and biodiversity in the Brazilian Amazon, learned this when he arrived in that region in 2009, at the start of the soy production boom. It took him time and effort to build trust and understand different perspectives, but he realized that while the world “is not always as we think it should be”, “it’s also not always as we fear it is”.

SEI Senior Research Fellow Karl Hallding, who has focused on China for many years, tackled the question of who is truly responsible for the country’s fast-rising emissions – China, or the countries that consume goods produced there. There is strong support for both views, yet neither quite fits the reality, Hallding noted: China’s GDP and emissions have both risen sharply since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2002, but it’s steel production in particular that drove much of the emissions growth.

“Massive subsidies have gone into heavy manufacturing in China, and that has propelled this enormous growth,” Hallding said. Since 2002, steel production has tripled, steel exports have increased 10-fold, and subsidies have increased 30-fold. Given the sector’s reliance on coal, the impact on local air quality has been devastating, and China is now changing its course.

Technology and people
Another key theme was the importance of learning from local people, and engaging closely with them, to ensure that science-driven and technological solutions actually work on the ground.

SEI Research Fellow Åse Johannessen noted that the Philippines has good storm warning systems, but they didn’t protect the people from Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation. Looking at a community where the systems did, in fact, work well, Johannessen learned that it was because of extensive local outreach and engagement to ensure that people could respond effectively to the storm warning.

“Technically advanced systems are very important, but they will only work if people can use them,” she said. “The systems need to be developed with local communities, not just by scientists.”

SEI Research Fellow Fiona Lambe talked about being called an “expert” in clean cookstoves, but then meeting the “true experts” – women in villages in northern India, the target users of clean stoves. They explained to her how they use a mix of wood and dung cakes to regulate heat, and how they use multiple stoves to prepare different items at once. No matter how technologically advanced, no stove will succeed in these settings if it doesn’t take into account the users’ perspectives.

The same holds true for toilets, SEI Research Fellow Kim Andersson noted later: Well intentioned foreigners have gone and built latrines in rural areas, and thought they had solved those people’s sanitation problem – yet sometimes when you go back and visit, you find they’re not used. (He showed a photo of one being used to store dung cakes used for cooking.)

The role of corruption also needs to be better recognized, said SEI Senior Research Fellow Peter Repinski: In Borneo, for example, rainforests are being cleared at alarming rates not for lack of laws to forbid it, but because illegal loggers take advantage of corruption and weak enforcement.

Why stories matter
SEI has used story-telling to present its research before, but never to this extent. Executive Director Johan L. Kuylenstierna said he received a great deal of positive feedback saying it “humanized” the science stories. It also highlighted connections that might otherwise be lost: similar challenges in very different places, how trade connects producers and consumers across thousands of kilometres, etc. And it emphasized the importance of working closely with a wide range of stakeholders and partners: from smallholders in Brazil, to Swedish companies engaged in the global economy.

Prof. Susan Owens, a member of SEI’s Science Advisory Council, said the story-telling sessions made it clear that “we need a rich concept of communication”. It can’t be just one-way, “scientists speaking truth to power”, but must involve multiple voices. It also showed “the facts are not enough”, but rather must be framed as convincing narratives, which requires personal stories.

Owens also emphasized the need to better understand how science influences policy, and avoid operation on the assumption that it is “simple and straightforward”.

“Science and policy are in a very fluid interaction with one another,” she said. “We can’t say that because a particular piece of knowledge becomes available, policy will change.” That is why “boundary organizations” that bridge the science-policy gap and engage both sides are so crucial.

“SEI was a boundary organization probably before we even started to use the term,” she said, “and it’s been an extremely effective operator in that area between science and politics.”

See a Storify collection of tweets from the event »