Articles | Volume 2, issue 2
SOIL, 2, 135–145, 2016

Special issue: Soil science in a changing world: contributions of soil science...

SOIL, 2, 135–145, 2016

Forum article 20 Apr 2016

Forum article | 20 Apr 2016

Facing policy challenges with inter- and transdisciplinary soil research focused on the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Johan Bouma1 and Luca Montanarella2 Johan Bouma and Luca Montanarella
  • 1Formerly Soils Department, Wageningen University, Wageningen, the Netherlands
  • 2Joint Research Centre, European Commission, Ispra, Italy

Abstract. Our current information society, populated by increasingly well-informed and critical stakeholders, presents a challenge to both the policy and science arenas. The introduction of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offers a unique and welcome opportunity to direct joint activities towards these goals. Soil science, even though it is not mentioned as such, plays an important role in realizing a number of SDGs focusing on food, water, climate, health, biodiversity, and sustainable land use. A plea is made for a systems approach to land use studies, to be initiated by soil scientists, in which these land-related SDGs are considered in an integrated manner. To connect with policy makers and stakeholders, two approaches are functional. The first of these is the policy cycle when planning and executing research, which includes signaling, design, decision making, implementation, and evaluation. Many current research projects spend little time on signaling, which may lead to disengagement of stakeholders. Also, implementation is often seen as the responsibility of others, while it is crucial to demonstrate – if successful – the relevance of soil science. The second approach is the DPSIR approach when following the policy cycle in land-related research, distinguishing external drivers, pressures, impact, and responses to land use change that affect the state of the land in the past, present, and future. Soil science cannot by itself realize SDGs, and interdisciplinary studies on ecosystem services (ESs) provide an appropriate channel to define contributions of soil science in terms of the seven soil functions. ESs, in turn, can contribute to addressing the six SDGs (2, 3, 6, 12, 13, and 15) with an environmental, land-related character. SDGs have a societal focus and future soil science research can only be successful if stakeholders are part of the research effort in transdisciplinary projects, based on the principle of time-consuming "joint learning". The internal organization of the soil science discipline is not yet well tuned to the needs of inter- and transdisciplinary approaches.

Short summary
The recently accepted UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a major challenge to the research community, including soil science. SDGs require a interdisciplinary research approach that forces every discipline to critically evaluate its core messages. Effective communication with the policy arena requires use of common policy concepts such as policy phases and distinction of drivers, pressures, and responses to change. To accomodate such needs, research practices will have to change.