In honor of World Water Day (March 22nd), we have invited a few field specialists to share their thoughts with us on the nature of their work and their commitment to addressing the SDGs. These experts translate science into realities that can provide solutions to social challenges and nurture the grass-root community collaboration. We asked how they address issues directly related to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation. Here we are sharing the thoughts of Alexandros Stefanakis from the School of Environmental Engineering, Technical University of Crete in Greece who is also Editor-in-Chief of Circular Economy and Sustainability
I specialize on the use of nature-based solutions and ecological engineering for the circular management and reuse of water/wastewater and waste resources. I also study the contents and scope of the transition to a circular economy and how this concept can be brought into real life. I am both active in research, participating in various international research projects in many countries, as well as a professional engineer in the design and implementation of such facilities.
The social impact is and should be an integral part of research. It expresses and measures the actual benefit for society of the research output, something that is important in order to develop holistically functional solutions. The ultimate beneficiary of research should be society, the economy, thus it is important to produce research output that will be not only technically effective but also socially beneficial.
The social aspect is always part of my research. As engineers, we develop new ideas and new technologies solutions to solve the modern environmental issues. However, the optimum solution is not necessarily the most technically efficient. We need to assess the effects our solutions and research output will have on the society, who will benefit, what is the spread of this benefit in order to make sure that this solution will work. Otherwise, we just develop solutions that stay in the lab.
I wouldn’t say it’s only one SDG that my work relates to. SGD 6 (clean water and sanitation) is the one that I focus on a lot, but I have and am still working on SDG 3 (good health, wellbeing), 8 (industry-innovation), 11 (sustainable cities), 13 (climate action), 14 (life on land).
There are many ways to measure the success rate. One could be the number of projects that use ecological engineering and technology, their contribution to climate change mitigation, the rate of water reuse and others.
Communicating the research output is not that easy as it seems. Personally, I make good use of social media and platforms as a means to directly reach a wider audience. Then, through interview and articles, where I present my work in a simple non-deeply-technical way so that everyone can understand it. And also, I participate at conferences, workshops and seminars, trying to accept as many as possible of the invitations I receive; for this, the use of virtual tools has been really helpful as it allowed me to participate in a larger number of events these last 2 years, something that would not have been feasible otherwise (one of the few side-benefits that the pandemic brought us). In addition, many of my projects typically include local workshops and meeting with stakeholders (e.g. farmers).
They should be pro-active and take initiatives outside their academic environment. This requires a multidimensional way of thinking that they should gradually develop, thinking beyond the limits of their research work and discipline. Curiosity, willingness to work, investigation, are required skills. And always ask your mentors, professors for advice, especially the ones that seem to be more open to that kind of activity.
I believe there is already a good connection between research and social impact. Most of the funding bodies nowadays require research proposals to consider such aspects. However, there is a critical point where the focus might shift and lose the crucial parameters that are needed in order to have the desired impact. In other words, we do not want to put the car in front of the horses. Research and society should go hand in hand, and work in parallel.
This is something that should be in their mind in order to maximise the impact of their work. At the same time, they should be able to identify where, how and to what extent the social aspect becomes a creative contributor to their work and not just a technical necessity for the proposals. Of course, this also counts for the funding bodies.
Big discussion. Publishers can do a lot to contribute to and communicate the research output related to SDGs. They have a pivotal role in this. One idea is to push more for lay versions of scientific articles that are published and have a merit for the wider audience – more motivations should be given to researchers to do this ‘extra’ work (e.g. more platforms, visibility, webinars, workshops, etc.). Also, more grants for free open access publications, especially of young researchers or researchers from developing countries, will be a significant support.