Sustainability is a complex challenge: how can research make a difference?

Published on 8 February 2021

A new series of events and resources from the ESRC STEPS Centre explores the front line of sustainability research: methods and methodologies.

Amid pandemics, climate change and other crises, calls to ‘listen to the scientists’ on sustainability issues are louder than ever. These problems call for methods that link the physical sciences, social research and the direct experience and knowledge of people on the ground. It’s vital to choose useful methods and use them in the right ways in order to produce the relevant evidence and ideas that are urgently needed.

At its best, research on sustainability can challenge power and open up possibilities – doing things differently, or rethinking how society is organised. But this can be hampered by myths of ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ research, and an artificial separation between knowledge and action. These myths make it hard to fully address sustainability problems which are contested, complex and political.

For sustainability research to be able to open up and broaden out to plural, diverse alternatives, it needs to be given space to do so by the institutions and funding that shape it. But in reality, there are many pressures on research to narrow its questions and close down around particular ideas of progress and development. This is a problem in a world where powerful actors are aiming to define the future options that are on the table – from how to protect coastal communities or vulnerable forests, to how we feed ourselves.

Under these conditions, it’s useful to explore methods that open up and broaden out pathways to sustainability. These tend to provide space to discuss different views of a problem; to include different kinds of expert and non-expert knowledge; to discuss values, world views and perspectives on what evidence matters; and to reveal multiple options for action in a changing world, rather than just single narrow ‘solutions’.

How to confront these challenges is the subject of a new series of events from the ESRC STEPS Centre (co-hosted by IDS and the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex), working with partners in Mexico and Kenya. The series of online dialogues, Challenging Research, focuses on methods and methodologies – the tools and ideas that shape how researchers engage with the world.

To keep up with the series, sign up to the STEPS events newsletter and follow @stepscentre on Twitter.


Blog: Challenging sustainability research: how can methods make a difference?

In this introductory blogpost for the STEPS theme on Methods, theme convenors Marina Apgar and Rose Cairns discuss three meanings of sustainability research as ‘challenging research’. Methods make a difference to the potential of research to challenge power; yet power also deeply shapes the way research is framed, carried out and interpreted. This encourages us to look beyond myths of ‘neutral’, objective research for sustainability, and understand how research and action are intertwined.

Read the post

Event: Challenging research for sustainability

Challenging research for sustainability: transdisciplinary methods, relationships, politics and praxis
17 February at 14.00-16.00 (UTC), online

In this first event in the Challenging Research series, we discuss the ideas and praxis involved in ‘opening up’ and ‘broadening out’ sustainability research. What does it mean to ‘open up’ research to enable plural knowledges and views to be included and considered? Why and how do we ‘broaden out’ to reveal potential pathways to diverse, emancipatory futures? The event includes speakers from STEPS hubs in the UK, Mexico and Kenya.


Event details

Methods resources

The STEPS Centre’s 2021 theme is Methods. A set of online resources includes vignettes (examples of methods), case studies on the STEPS Centre’s experience of using methods in projects, and further resources. It also features a guide to the STEPS Pathways Approach, a guide to thinking and action around challenges associated with climate change, pandemic disease, food systems, technological change and other sustainability issues.

Browse: Methods resources

Key contacts

Nathan Oxley

Impact Communications and Engagement Officer

+44 (0)1273 915826


About this news item

Related content


Moving towards responsible gold mining in Geita, Tanzania

26 April 2024