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Lighthouse funding programmes for sustainability research and innovation 

In their last report, the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences outline best practices for designing and implementing sustainability research programmes. It draws lessons from best practices worldwide, including the ISC’s LIRA 2030 Africa programme.

Have you ever wished for a funding programme that is tailor-made to support your research for a more sustainable society? One that recognises the complexity of sustainability problems and their interconnections? One that supports co-production of knowledge with non-academic actors and acknowledges that transdisciplinary research may need more time and different metrics to measure success and impact?

In a recent report, the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences have outlined the characteristics and project design requirements necessary to meet in order to develop what they refer to as “lighthouse programmes.”

Sustainability research helps us understand the consequences of our actions and behaviour, offering insights to alternative scenarios and pathways towards a more sustainable society. In doing so, it reveals the complex interactions between different domains, such as how our energy system and subsequent resource depletion are linked to biodiversity loss and social inequalities. Unfortunately, our present academic system, with its strong disciplinary focus, often fails to adequately support the kind of integrated and systemic research that is needed. Considerably more emphasis (and resources) needs to be granted to impact-oriented research aimed at tackling the complex challenges of our time.

 Recognizing this gap, the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences have initiated a process of reflection and consultation to explore the optimal design and management process of large and integrated funding programmes in support of sustainable development (“lighthouse programmes”). This process culminated in the publication of a report, “Lighthouse programmes in sustainability research and innovation”, intended for both policymakers and the wider scientific and innovation community. This report provides practical guidelines and recommendations to research funding agencies and researchers on how to conceptualize, promote and manage lighthouse programmes.

Drawing inspiration from successful funding programmes worldwide that support sustainability research and innovation it provides valuable insight into best practices. The report notably features recommendations from the ISC’s LIRA 2030 Africa programme, which funded inter- and transdisciplinary research on the sustainable development of African cities and provided various capacity building activities to early-career scientists.

Key recommendations for designing “lighthouse programmes”

Following an introduction highlighting the necessity for innovative funding programmes, the report describes the essential features of lighthouse programmes and provides recommendations for both individual projects and overarching programmes. Project-level advice includes how complex sustainability questions addressed in the project can be adequately framed. For example, applicants may be asked to reflect on sustainable development as a normative concept and co-define a common understanding of sustainability priorities in the context of their project.  

The report addresses the challenge of maximising the potential societal impact of research – an issue commonly encountered by researchers and funders. Here, it suggested various approaches, including requiring applicants to familiarise themselves with societal dynamics in an extended pre-proposal development phase, and building alliances and networks with political, societal and private sector actors.   

The report also emphasizes the need for funding programmes to be responsive to changing circumstances, such as unforeseen political, technological or economic events or changing stakeholder participation. Possible measures to deal with the unexpected include allowing project teams to engage new partners and providing funding that can be flexibly allocated.

Evaluating research’s impacts 

The report extends its recommendations to cover the preparation, governance and management of lighthouse programmes. It stresses the need for an extended preparatory phase (> 2 years) in order to map problem perspectives, refine research topics through iterative processes with experts from science and practice, and plan mechanisms for evaluating outcomes and impact.  

A particular challenge for lighthouse programmes is the evaluation of research impact in promoting positive changes and improving policy and decision-making, especially considering that such impacts may only manifest years after the programme’s conclusion. To address this issue, the report recommends using formative approaches based on anticipated impacts that are tracked and modified as research and innovation processes progress and knowledge increases. It is useful to perform this both at the level of the single projects, i.e. the single funded components, and at the programme level. 

An important function of lighthouse programmes would be to strengthen the capacity of research institutions to address sustainability challenges. This could involve establishing cross-cutting structures (institutes, competence centres) that support inter- and transdisciplinary research, or by developing transdisciplinary training and teaching formats. Institutions can also serve as good examples by advocating for, and supporting, novel forms of academic careers that bridge science, policy and practice (e.g., “professors of practice” and the like).  

Lighthouse programmes thus present manifold opportunities for funding agencies and academic institutions to strengthen their contributions to sustainable development. Even adapting existing funding programmes with a few innovative design elements and building blocks outlined in the report can create impact. The report therefore invites funders, researchers and other members of the academic community to draw inspiration from the implemented lighthouse programmes for their own work and collaborations. 

Global Call for Science Missions for Sustainability 

Building on its pioneering experience in implementing transdisciplinary research funding programmes, the ISC has launched a global call for Science Missions for Sustainability that will elevate the collaboration between science, policy, and society to new heights to produce actionable integrated knowledge and find solutions that match the scale of humanity’s most critical sustainability challenges.

Global Call for piloting Science Missions for Sustainability

Global Call for piloting Science Missions for Sustainability

The goal of this Global Call is to choose up to five Pilot Missions to test the proposed model, thoroughly examining their execution, outcomes, and impact. Successful Pilots will set the stage for adapting and expanding the model.

Learn more about missions Apply

The information, opinions and recommendations presented in this article are those of the individual contributor/s, and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of the International Science Council.

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