Melanie Marcel is a social entrepreneur pioneering the field of “Responsible Innovation” in Europe’s scientific community. We caught up with her to reflect on the role of scientific research in the climate action field.
What’s the problem you are focused on?
My main goal is to steer scientific research towards having a positive impact on social and environmental issues. Industry focuses almost entirely on how research or science can create new, marketable products that increase profits for companies. As a result, our understanding of what constitutes valuable research and scientific knowledge is deeply skewed. All the conversations around incentivizing researchers, creating tax cuts for innovation, etc. — they are all geared towards economic impact, not social and environmental return.
An example of how you address this?
At the core, we are changing the classic collaboration setup between industry and academic research. We have identified a missing link: we incorporate civil society, NGOs, and social entrepreneurs in the research partnership. Industry has not fully caught on yet to change their practices in that direction. When they think of open innovation, they think either of collaborating with academia or investing in start-ups. Thanks in part to our work since 2012, this is starting to change.
For example, we partnered with the Nestle group on solving packaging challenges, a topic intricately linked to environmental issues. We structured an open innovation program that embeds civil society in research. One of the innovations we surfaced and are now supporting is a collaboration between the technology centers of Perrier and an enterprise led by a French social entrepreneur who previously worked with beer companies to transition them away from plastic kegs. We helped them forge a partnership to distribute water in kegs through local shops – thus eliminating small plastic bottles. In this new model, we would all come to the shop with our own bottle and refill it there. This is not only a new kind of packaging but a new route to market for the industry. This kind of thinking only appeared because we put these people in the same room. Our industry partners were really impressed with the result. They saw that social entrepreneurs are able not only to repair broken things, but they can actually create a new world.
In essence, we are telling industry players, “this is not only your burden to solve.” It is a change in mindset. Polluters think they have to be the saviors who find the solutions and implement them. But that’s not the case. What we need is to cooperate and to democratize research in the process.
What does the future of climate research look like?
My vision is twofold. First, we must integrate everyone who is relevant in the research and innovation ecosystem. When we talk about climate, we have to involve citizens and environmental NGOs.
Secondly, we must embed research into daily life. Today, we never ever ask citizens on the street what our priorities should be when it comes scientific research. We just assume it’s too complex for them to understand. There is a need to democratize science. We need to go beyond informing people and start involving them.
So we need to start making decisions differently?
Yes. We have to base our decisions on a much more complex and nuanced understanding of the world that also includes lived experience. Most business or economic decisions today are made based on one number or KPIs that are a ridiculous over-simplification of the world.
For example, in the Covid context, experts cannot base their decisions solely on hard numbers. These will always be less precise than information coming from people on the ground (the helpers, the supermarket workers, etc.). If we want to make decisions that make sense we have to involve everyone. It is not just about numbers, but about the complexity of people’s experiences. This is also clear to anyone who has worked on biodiversity. When it comes to ecosystems we know everything is connected and we cannot tackle just one issue. We have to be systemic.
What about values?
We need to start valuing all kinds of knowledge. We’ve done a really terrible job at it. Traditional scientific knowledge is considered good, but the experience of someone who is ill, or a farmer is not considered knowledge. It is seen as irrational or emotional.
I’ll give you another example that connects to the fake news movement. It’s clear there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes valuable information. If we continuously dismiss what people say and feel, it is quite natural that they may start developing trust issues towards the very people dismissing their own experiences. They won’t feel valued, so they won’t believe you anymore. We need to value all kinds of experiences as knowledge, and to include citizens in designing solutions.
How do we do that?
It is extremely complicated. If I look at the people I interact with everyday– scientists and industry professionals– they are all individually interested in advancing more than just economic outcomes. But the system is built in a way that puts profit first. Researchers also tell us: “I would be really interested to work on this project, but if I do that, my career is at risk, because what I really need is to file a patent or publish a paper.” What needs to happen is a change in what we value and in our system– at the highest level. Maybe we need a bit of a revolution… We are stuck doing things in a way that not so many people agree with, why is that?
What got things unstuck in the past?
Courage. It takes one person or a group of people’s courage and the will to fight for it in the long term to change a company or a team. With their courage, we’re then able to come in and help a company see that the world is changing and if they don’t change too they will be late to the party. We apply social pressure. It is important not to frighten people or be in a direct fight with them. You need everyone: the big visionaries and the people who take others by the hand.
Can money help with that?
The ones who are convinced don’t need it. If people don’t yet understand that they are the environment, they will need other incentives. We tell our clients: if you go this way, you will be more advanced, more innovative, etc. But we also need to be careful not to stick to financial incentives only, or we will perpetuate the same issue. We need to transform mindsets. At the same time, it is very important that we act fast – so let’s not be too purist and let’s give people economic incentives if they need them; but we must then work the extra mile to change mindsets as well.
With racism it is the same. We’ve created laws and policies to prevent or address racism but the basic mindset never changed at a societal level.
What’s the new mindset we need?
We have to stop differentiating between nature, the environment and humans. This is the real problem. We are part of the environment. We are nature. Stopping the destruction will safeguard our ability to live on this planet. We must have empathy and respect, not only with environment, but also with other humans and all forms of knowledge. Environmental justice needs social justice and social justice needs environmental justice.
Melanie Marcel is a social entrepreneur and founder of SoScience, an organization that works at the crossroads of social impact and scientific excellence. She is pioneering the field for Responsible Innovation by building partnerships between research institutes and social enterprises in Europe. Melanie was elected as an Ashoka Fellow in France in 2018.
Corina Murafa is leading Next Now/Planet & Climate and is also the Director of Ashoka Romania. Prior to joining Ashoka, she advanced long-lasting positive change in Eastern Europe as a public policy expert on energy and sustainability. She has worked for the World Bank, OMV Petrom, Deloitte, national governments and think tanks.
Next Now: Ashoka is galvanizing the strength of its community on climate action. Next Now: Planet & Climate aims to change the course of history by uniting extraordinary changemakers around audacious goals that bring people and planet to a new equilibrium. This Ashoka series sheds light on the wisdom and ideas of leaders guiding the field. (Read Part 1, Part 2 , Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 of our series on the future of Planet & Climate.)