“Brainpower for Sustainable Development – the Cognitive Preconditions for a Successful Sustainability Transition”

Speech by State Secretary Georg Schütte, Federal Ministry of Education and Research, at the Leopoldina Symposium in Berlin

Brain Power for Sustainable Development
Georg Schütte, State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, says: “Sustainability is the goal and benchmark for the Federal Government’s policy.” © BMBF / Hans-Joachim Rickel

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President Hacker, Members of the IGS,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank the Leopoldina very much for inviting me to today’s symposium. Its very title – “Brainpower for Sustainable Development” – alludes to an innovative complex of topics while also addressing issues which the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the BMBF, has been working on for a long time in many areas.

I was happy to take up the Leopoldina’s invitation also because I have already been involved in two of its events which focused on how science can contribute to sustainable development. As I see it, they were two particularly positive and ambitious conferences.

  • At the first workshop on “Sustainability in Science”, we were still discussing how to structure the topic into various categories. As far as I can tell, the differentiation which you proposed has done a lot to propel the broader public debate.
  • By 2016 that debate had progressed to the point where we were discussing recommendations which had been made a few weeks earlier by three major science organizations [Leibniz Association, Helmholtz Association, Fraunhofer] on the question of how science and research can be both sustainable and promote sustainability. Our common opinion two years ago was that it is no longer a matter of whether but rather how science – independently and for the benefit of society – can help to advance sustainable development.

The Leopoldina is making further strides in this development today in its discussion of a concrete innovative approach based on new results gained from cognitive research. And that is: How can education and research strengthen individual skills to the extent that they spur the transformation of society needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?

The fact that this discussion – led by the Leopoldina, the National Academy of Sciences – is taking place together with the international Independent Group of Scientists, is a particularly plausible step forward, as it occurs at the interface of science and the political sector.

As a representative of German research and education policy, I am very much looking forward to the results of your discussion. It should go without saying that I do not intend to forestall your expert arguments. Instead, I would like to point out a few of the issues in your debate which affect national education and research policy so that you might have some points of reference for your follow-up talk and further work.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Surely there is no need to convince anyone in this audience about the Sustainable Development Goals. I will therefore keep it brief and say only this: The Federal Government regards sustainability as both the goal and benchmark of its policies – and has done so for many years and despite changes of government. It is out of great conviction that we committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs, set by the United Nations.

Our research and education policy is also committed to achieving these aims. Since 2005 there has been a large-scale framework programme which consolidates our activities and is entitled "FONA – Research for Sustainable Development". This programme provides funding of around 500 million euros per year for sustainability research projects and infrastructure.

The key focus in FONA is always on answering the question of how we can integrate sustainability into the daily lives of our citizens. Emotions play a key role in this regard. One example is our City of the Future Innovation Platform. Scientists and representatives from local authorities host public workshops, dialogue forums and expert talks with residents of urban neighbourhoods. These people can see and grasp, with the help of visualization and models, what the advantages are of taking sustainable action in their everyday lives: for instance, the creation of green open space instead of car-parking spaces for the preservation of biodiversity in their neighbourhood.

In addition to this project-based approach in FONA, we invest roughly another 500 million euros in funding for research institutions whose activities are relevant to the SDGs – these include the large Helmholtz Centres for Environment, Marine or Geosciences Research, the Max Planck Institutes for Energy Research, or the many Leibniz and Fraunhofer Institutes working in biodiversity, climate change, and resource efficiency.

We consider our research in the fields of sustainability to be very good – yet, we must reflect and admit that our research findings are not being translated into practice as quickly and comprehensively as would make sense and be necessary. If we mean to take the 17 SDGs seriously and do everything we can to achieve them by 2030, we must make meaningful improvements in research and technology transfer.

So here is my first question to the panel: can innovative approaches and new knowledge in the neurosciences help us accelerate and improve the impact of research?

This leads to considerations at completely different levels:

At the level of political discussion, we must carefully consider to what extent an approach based on the individual’s ability, skills and competences shifts the responsibility for a transformation to the individual level. I believe that such an effect would not be appropriate even if transformation does require a change at the individual level. Not only that, we won’t be able to avoid taking such responsibility in the future.

However, the responsibility for the transformation of the system – of economic and societal structures – is beyond any doubt in the hands of the decision-makers in those sectors. The political sector – meaning the BMBF and the United Nations, too – may not shirk their responsibility by declaring sustainability a private matter. Our democratic systems would hardly allow this to happen anyway. Besides, such a move would likely mean the end of all earnest prospects of success for this transformation.

So my question to the panel is: How do you perceive the correlation between the responsibilities of the individual and those of society? And how will your discussion today address this correlation?

While we are talking about the individual level, it seems reasonable to draw on my personal perception: I am much more informed today about sustainability than I was 15 years ago – but I hardly have more orientation. On some issues it almost seems that the more I know, the more unclear it becomes what options for sustainable action I should choose.

The situation is similar when it comes to big decisions – something which Germany faces on two issues in particular: Are nuclear power and genetically modified organisms a part of the problems of sustainability or their solutions? On both accounts I do not feel that the appropriate public debate and the subsequent policy-making processes are influenced much at all by the research findings.

The same holds true, perhaps even more so, on a small scale. Take the example of grocery shopping: Should I buy an organically grown cucumber, although its cultivation consumes more of scarce land and the fact that – at least in Germany – they are usually wrapped in plastic, but I want to avoid that because of the problem of plastic pollution of the seas? Is regionally produced milk always the sustainable choice – when I know that large dairy farms have much more efficient production? Is sustainable consumption through the local retail trade even an achievable goal? Perhaps global supply through online trade and efficiency-optimized shipping is the more resource-conserving solution after all?

What I am trying to point out in these mundane examples brings me to next question for the panel: How can research deliver new knowledge to help each and every one of us to become more competent to take sustainable action? To what extent can we trust that effective development at the individual level will make the overall societal discourse more rational and more able to handle complex issues?

I think it takes more than just cognitive abilities. This is also about motivational questions, ethical orientation, and the willingness to assume responsibility and so much more. And one cannot help but observe that global political developments are not becoming more ethical, responsible or rational in general.

Insofar as a link can be created between the individual and political level in this context, I would like to know: What cognitive, neurological but also what emotional and psychological mechanisms have unleashed a social dynamic in a number of countries which has provided political majorities for national, isolationist groups which are not only uncooperative, but also quite explicitly unsustainable?

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Your demand for brain power – for new, better education – is directed at policy-makers. The previous session examined the issue of how education – SDG 4 – is related to the other SDGs.

The OECD put it this way in its report last year: "Education is so central to the achievement of a sustainable, prosperous and equitable planet that failure to achieve this particular SDG puts at risk the achievement of the 17 SDGs as a whole" (OECD 2017: Education at a Glance).“

The BMBF completely agrees on this score – but it is not something that is automatic. It is not at all the case that better education results in more sustainable action. In fact higher levels of educational attainment often correlate with lower levels of sustainable action – because it translates into higher income, which we welcome, of course. But higher income usually goes hand in hand with more consumption and thus more emissions and resource use.

What is more, we have to admit that the world has made great and sincere efforts for centuries to make humans smarter, better, more educated – all this without leading to more sustainability.

This is why the international community – the UN and UNESCO – have been looking for a new format of education which can act as “brain power” for sustainable development. As the BMBF sees it, we have learned in the last 15 years in particular what “Education for Sustainable Development”, or ESD, means – that is, how education can help advance the successful transformation towards sustainability.

  • ESD turns the systemic challenges facing sustainable development into key elements of teaching and learning. It is a great challenge for the individual to grasp and internalize abstract, intangible future threats to guide their action in the present time.
  • Because there are no easy answers to questions concerning the establishment of global equity or fighting climate change, one must learn how to cope with the unknown.
  • ESD does more than teach, say, that average mean temperature is rising. It also provides contextual knowledge and strengthens the ability to engage in dialogue because what counts is how the professional expertise is applied to systems. Only then can appropriate action be taken in response to rising temperatures.
  • To achieve this learning outcome – above all enabling learners to apply creative and critical thinking skills and motivating them to actively steer the course of sustainable development – ESD must adopt innovative, participatory teaching and learning methods. Learners must acquire the skills needed to influence the future.
  • Teachers have to assume a different role. Instead of “pouring” their knowledge over the learners who must absorb it, they are moderators of learning processes as the learners “teach themselves”, so to speak.

Education for sustainable development is based on traditional tenets of environmental education, global learning, peace education, consumer education, intercultural education, or democracy education. However, ESD must go beyond mere environmental education because it encompasses all the dimensions of sustainability and includes more comprehensive learning goals.

One more question to the panel: What can cognitive research and the neurosciences and their newest findings on human development do to help achieve these most ambitious learning goals – whether in terms of didactics, methodology, organization of teaching/learning processes, or the structures of education systems?

“Education systems” across the entire spectrum are called upon here, for if ESD is to effectively help achieve the SDGs, it must occur in all sectors of education – from early childhood to adult education, by setting the same goals, yet with adapted approaches for the specific situation. At the same time, an education policy process such as ESD which seeks to move everybody to take action cannot be commanded from the top down. The very process would run counter to the achievement of the goals. This is nothing new for us in Germany. The responsibilities for our education system are widely distributed as a result of the federal system, the autonomy of universities, and other legal framework conditions.

The BMBF therefore pushed the process at the beginning of the UNESCO’s “Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable Development” by launching a broad-based agenda process in 2015 in preparation of the national implementation of the programme. To achieve the ambitious goal of anchoring education for sustainable development at all levels of the education system meant involving all the relevant stakeholders from the very beginning. Nearly 300 stakeholders from science, education, civil society, the Federal Government, the 16 Länder and local authorities worked for more than a year to develop an action plan. Six expert forums were held on the key phases of the educational path.

We reached a milestone in June 2017 when the National Platform ESD, representing all sectors of society, unanimously adopted the National Action Plan. In so doing, we created a joint basis for cooperation across all sectors and stakeholder groups.

What I would like to know about these activities is whether your panel can give any pointers on how to effectively design cooperation and communication to promote sustainability? How can we better overcome obstacles and contrary trends in the long term? How can we, despite our differences – in terms of educational levels and cognitive abilities – establish consensus and implement it for the sake of sustainable transformation?

In conclusion, I would like to emphasize one point which you seem to have realized and are already implementing but which, as far as I can tell, is not generally agreed upon to the extent which is necessary: Research and education in many areas must be linked much more closely if they are to benefit from each other in the interest of a transformation towards a sustainable society.

We have made this pronouncement in a number of contexts: The FONA framework programme contains a long statement about higher education institutions, vocational education and training and local authorities; the National Action Plan ESD contains a statement by higher education institutions that research and ESD will be linked systematically; many related documents and speeches have proclaimed that more research is needed to develop ESD further into a major key to achieving the SDGs and strengthening their effectiveness.

But as I said at the beginning: no matter how highly developed insights and theory may already be, the practice lags behind – practice in education and research, and also practical successes in achieving the SDGs.

I am therefore glad and thankful that the Leopoldina is seeking to build a bridge with the International Group of Scientists – a bridge between different disciplines, between education and research, and also between the latest research and more sustainable practice.

I hope that my questions have provided you with some food for thought for your discussion.

Thank you for your attention. I wish you a stimulating discussion.