Published 2019-04-15

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What became of Mistra’s biggest funding initiative ever?

The Stockholm Resilience Centre is Mistra’s largest initiative so far. In total, the Foundation has invested SEK 200 million over 12 years.
‘We have Mistra to thank for our existence. Their bold initiative and the freedom that went with it enabled us to create a totally unique research centre,’ says Director Line Gordon.

By 2007, when the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) was formed, there were already a number of research groups studying environmental and climate issues. Mistra’s initiative made it possible to gather researchers specialising in a variety of fields in a centre with a broad, interdisciplinary approach.

Line Gordon






‘By collecting various research groups under the same roof, we succeeded in achieving strong, boundary-crossing research,’ says Line Gordon, the Centre’s Director since August 2018.

In Gordon’s view, for researchers in different disciplines to start understanding one another, it was crucial for them all literally to be assembled in the same building. Simply put, when people have coffee and lunch together, it creates more in-depth, intensive joint efforts.

‘Building relationships takes time, but I think the process has an intrinsic value. Compared with many other research groups, we also spend a lot of time defining which questions to try and answer. By doing so, we find issues of high relevance to both research and society.’

The forms of work may help, but it was the focus of research chosen by the SRC that soon proved crucially important in the Centre rapidly becoming relevant in terms of scholarship and interesting to the media.

‘Ever since we started, our approach has been to focus on socio-ecological systems, notably human–environment interaction. But questions about complex, dynamic systems, including ecosystems, and communities’ capacity to withstand disruptions, also became important to us early on. Not just from a negative perspective: we also study whether the changes can lead to new opportunities.’

The Stockholm Resilience Centre is Mistra’s largest initiative ever. Altogether, over the years, the Foundation has invested about SEK 200 million in the Centre — and size is important, not least in research contexts.

‘Thanks to having considerable resources right from the start, we were able to take on greater challenges and do research that’s both curiosity-driven and relevant to society,’ Gordon says.

In her opinion, the freedom and a long programme period that Mistra gave the Centre were equally important, and greatly contributed to the researchers braving deep waters and tackling complex issues.

Although the SRC was promised plenty of time, the researchers had none to spare. Instead, they hit the ground running — something made easier by the various research groups already having projects under way that, in the new Centre, they could continue with.

‘That allowed us to start delivering research results early. And by the first midterm evaluation, after two years, we were already judged to be a leading global research centre. Scholars paid attention to our work on socio-ecological systems — how people and the environment interact. Today, this work has given us deeper understanding of how we humans shape our planet.’

The SRC seems to be associated with certain salient terms and concepts. These have not always been created by the Centre’s researchers, but the SRC has definitely been involved in establishing them in the debate. Some terms, such as ‘Anthropocene’ and ‘resilience’, are abstract. Others are more concrete, like ‘planetary boundaries’, ‘planetary stewards’ and ‘blue and green water’. The latter terms refer to how both the ‘blue’ water, found in lakes and oceans, and the ‘green’, with its less visible circulation, are resources that must be cared for and protected.

‘We’ve worked a lot on these terms. And they’ve assumed great importance both in terms of the potential outreach of our research and in bringing researchers from different disciplines together. The conceptual thinking is also useful when we collaborate outside the Centre; in particular, this has made it easier to build bridges among stakeholders,’ says Gordon, who is a trained biologist with water resources as one of her research areas.

‘But the foundation of our work is still basic, data-driven research.’

An example of how, today, the SRC is actively seeking collaborations outside its own research ‘bubble’ is the Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS) initiative. It originated in a research project started in the Centre with the aim of studying key stakeholders in marine environments.

‘In ecosystems, there are a number of species that, despite often being few in number, have a disproportionately large influence on the environment around them. Some SRC researchers even questioned whether there are any human stakeholders with an equally large impact on their surroundings.’

This work resulted in the researchers being able to identify 13 fishing companies whose collective catch is up to 40 per cent of the sales value from various global fish stocks. As a next step, these companies were invited to join in a dialogue on how they can switch from posing a threat to these global fish stocks to becoming effective ocean managers.

‘There was keen interest among them, and on three occasions in recent years we’ve convened top management from 10 of these companies to find out, based on our research work, what they should do to improve.’

Another area that has received much attention recently is a report on food and health published in the medical journal The Lancet.

‘The report had an amazing impact and we were able to show that producing food for 10 billion people without violating the planetary boundaries is feasible. Our conclusions aren’t uncontroversial in society, but as long as we present results based on solid research, we can stick our necks out in the debate.’

Writing about the SRC’s history without mentioning Johan Rockström is impossible. Few researchers have such a strong, clear profile outside their own special field.

‘He’s a research visionary, while also having a unique ability to simplify complex issues and make them intelligible to many people. That’s greatly helped us to gain a strong position in the research community. But he’s not the only one; our science director Carl Folke, one of the world’s most cited researchers, has also had a major bearing on our success.’

Gordon also wants to highlight the ‘incognito’ Olof Olsson.

‘Thanks to the fact that Olof, who’s been the Centre’s operations officer, has been an organisational kingpin here, Johan and Carl have been able to focus on the scientific content of the work.’

Rockström recently stepped down as director and Line Gordon is shouldering the role in his stead. He is no easy act to follow.

‘I’ve worked at the SRC since it started, which gives me security, and I don’t have any ambition to become Johan’s clone. Instead, I want the Centre to speak with more voices in future.’

Parallel to the Centre’s new internal workings, in recent years there have also been changes in the world at large. The previous relative consensus on climate and the environment has been superseded by a much more polarised debate.

‘When we started the Centre, the controversies were about how to make the work interdisciplinary. Now we’re up against growing fact resistance in society. My conclusion is that our scientific voice has never been more important.

‘But we must also get better at understanding the social tensions that become clear when environmental and climate measures lead to raised living costs. If we’re to achieve sustainable development, the measures and their costs must go hand in hand with greater fairness. At the same time, we must make it clear that if we don’t safeguard the climate and the biosphere, costs to all vulnerable people will be even higher.’

Gordon also wants environmental researchers to be more positive.

‘Describing climate change in negative terms is necessary, but we’ve also got to talk about what a good life can be in the Anthropocene. When we say we should only eat 100 grams of meat a week if we’re to meet both climate and health challenges, we must supplement that story with positive images of the future.’

An example of a positive approach is a collaborative project called ‘Seeds of a Good Anthropocene’.

‘Just talking about things we mustn’t do, or how hopeless everything is, solves no problems. To succeed, we must have both light and dark colours in the palette.’

Although it has been a principal funder of the SRC for many years, Mistra has long been just one of the bodies that have contributed funds.

‘Although it’s a pity, I understand that after so many years, Mistra has to leave us. With Mistra, we got greater freedom and a unique long-term perspective. Brave research funders are needed for us to be able to address the major social challenges. Mistra is one of them.’

Mistra’s CEO Åke Iverfeldt is one of those who are full of praise for the SRC. And in his view the Centre is one of the Foundation’s real flagships and an initiative that has also contributed to building Mistra’s reputation, not least internationally.

‘The SRC has been both bold and skilful in developing methods for transdisciplinary research. It’s a challenging path for a researcher to take, but they’ve certainly shown it’s a method that works well, both in research and as a way to reach out to society with research results.’

In Iverfeldt’s view, the fact that Mistra is now leaving the Centre in purely financial terms does not mean it will close down. Rather, this is the end of the beginning.

‘We see Mistra as an investor that sows seeds and creating prospects for structural changes. That’s why I’m very pleased our initiative is now getting a new lease of life as an integral part of Stockholm University.’

Responsibility for the SRC has now been taken over by Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute, under the auspices of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Text: Per Westergård