Topic of the year: Interview

“We need to build a fire-proof house"

Three questions to Dr. Peter Messerli, Director of the Wyss Academy for Nature and Professor for Sustainable Development


Prof. Dr. Peter Messerli

Director of the Wyss Academy for Nature

What motivates the Wyss Academy to connect science and action?

We realized that knowledge, action, and decision making are often totally separate. They happen in silos, and they don’t connect. Researchers often write reports and hope decision makers will implement their scientific recommendations. But this doesn’t really happen, or at least not at the speed needed if we consider the urgency of our global environmental and social crises. In order to address the current dysfunctionalities of the key systems we live in, we must therefore try out new approaches. This is why, in our mission, we say we want to bring together science, action, and the power of decision makers.

Topic of the year

Photo by: Peter Messerli

Is that why the Wyss Academy was founded?

There are different parts to this story. The University of Bern already promotes great interdisciplinary research in the fields of climate change, sustainability of land systems, and biodiversity. Building on the existing research and related partnerships across the world, there was an understanding that we should work together to create an innovative institution that promotes transdisciplinarity and action on the ground.

My personal point of view is that the most efficient way to protect nature or to get people out of poverty is to change the dysfunctional systems that create these problems in the first place. If the driving forces remain unaddressed and the pressure keeps growing because the economy doesn’t internalize ecological costs, or because of the way we build cities and infrastructure, or because we still produce food in a way that is unfair and harms the environment – if all this continues, then even if we tried to protect nature with fences or weapons, in the end, we wouldn’t make it. The same goes for poverty and inequality. It’s not enough to extinguish the fire, we need to build a fire-proof house. Even if the ambition of transforming systems is huge, we can be smarter and more fit for purpose. We want to demonstrate that there are ways to change systems, and how this can be done. That is a little bit of my own story.

Topic of the year

Photo by: Alexander Leuenberger

Topic of the year

Photo by: Julie Zähringer

Topic of the year

Photo by: Peter Messerli

How is it possible to bring science to the ground?

We are not an ordinary scientific organization that has predefined research questions and by all means tries to answer them. In other words, we don’t want to answer questions that nobody has asked. Neither are we a development organization that assumes the world can be changed through logframes that guarantee all expected results beforehand. Seeing how interconnected our world is and how quickly it changes, I think we should admit the uncertainty is so big that interventions will always have unexpected outcomes or trigger unintended side-effects. At the Wyss Academy, we have the privilege to be able to experiment in what we call a living lab approach. This means we can respond to concrete challenges that we see; we need to define the goals and research questions while engaging with the system. We have a huge obligation to be capable of learning from what we do.

We should not come along and say: “We’re bringing you the solution that you’ve always been waiting for, because we’re the experts and the researchers. So, here is our smart thing.” Instead, at the Wyss Academy, we say: “We’re coming here to work and learn with you, to learn together.” As long as we learn, monitor, and evaluate, we can try out new things. We also have the right to fail. That’s a niche the Wyss Academy has. So, we need to be aware of what a great privilege and opportunity we have.