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PhD researchers want stronger engagement with the UNs Sustainable Development Goals. Photo: AAU

PhD researchers want stronger engagement with the UNs Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals should be relevant for all research. An important way to make positive impact is to engage with society and this was for the third time explored by PhD fellows from across the AAU faculties this November.

Lone Kørnøv and Søren Løkke, Department of Planning

In the PhD course ‘Engaging with Society’, 17 PhD students from AAU investigated their research impacts beyond academia including contributions to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Some of the main results and reflections were:

  • Every single PhD research could be linked to the SDGs – either with potential positive and/or negative impacts. This was new to almost everyone attending.
  • All found new ways in which their research could become critical agents of change for contribution to the global targets.
  • 75% of the PhD students in the course agree that thinking systematically about possible influence of SDGs should be obligatory in their research field.

The results might seem surprising, considering the PhDs came from as diverse fields as medicine, computer science, health science and technology, communication, energy technology, production, planning, architecture and design and PBL – and none explicitly from sustainability science.

The aspiration to continue reflecting on how to impact and contribute to sustainability was one of the main ‘take-aways’ of the course, here formulated by one of the participants in the internal course evaluation:

“I take away awareness of the SDGs, how partnership/contact with more societal actors/organizations would qualify my research – especially if I want my research to have an impact”.

The experience from the course underline the point also raised in the first quadrennial Global Sustainable Development Report prepared by an independent group of scientists:

“To realize the full power of science for sustainable development, it is important to negotiate the direction of research. In dialogue with society, researchers in relevant fields should define the necessary combination of disciplinary, inter- or trans-disciplinary approaches.” (The Future is Now: Science for Achieving Sustainable Development, 2019)

The experience raises some important questions for the university and the PhD supervisors: How do we further support the younger researchers to engage with the SDGs in order to advance the 2030 Agenda? How do we help them critically reflect upon and avoid the risk of SDG-picking/washing? How can we help PhDs to strengthen the needed science-policy-society interfaces? How can we support them to balance scientific practices and the normative agenda embedded in the 17 SDGs? Which arenas can we set up for supporting the university wide research including natural science and engineering, life science and medicine, social science and humanities, law and more?

Short about the PhD course

‘Engaging in society’ relates to the AAU strategy “From research to change” and focus on the role of science in society. The aim is to create a space for PhDs from different disciplines to share and critically reflect upon change-implications of their research, elucidate possibilities for enhancing research-external impacts and change agency of researchers, hereunder the role of science in implementing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals endorsed by the global community.

The course was organized by Professor Lone Kørnøv and Associate Professor Søren Løkke, Department of Planning.