Improving the next generation of materials and products and advancing the SDGs

The Source
By: Guest contributor, Mon Feb 21 2022

Author: Guest contributor

Engineering. Chemistry. Materials science. Applied physics. Applied mathematics. Every applied discipline that touches the supply chain will need to work together—to join up as a community—to solve the problems of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. Here we’re sharing thoughts from John Provis at the University of Sheffield, UK, Editor-in-Chief of Materials and Structures

What is the focus of your research work?

I work on the development of cements for various applications - particularly for sustainable, durable construction, and also for use in management of hazardous and radioactive wastes.

What are the short- and long-term goals of your work?

My main goal - which is both short-term and long-term - is to try to enable those people who use cements to have access to the best material for each job that needs to be done. A lot of the time people use a single type of cement to do more or less everything they need to do, because there doesn't appear to be a viable alternative. So, I'm pushing the concept of a "toolkit" of cements, to enable end-users and specifiers to choose and use the material that will give the best performance (technical and environmental) in each particular application.

How would you define societal impact when it comes to research?

I would define societal impact in materials research as being when the research has an effect in how materials are designed and used for the benefit of society.

How important is societal impact to your research? Why?

As a researcher in engineering materials, I think it's fair to say that if my research has no societal impact then it wouldn't have a purpose. It's obvious that a lot of applied research is very focused on end-usage, but it's equally important that "pure" research driven by discovery and generation of new knowledge, has the possibility to enormously improve the next generation of materials and products that become available to society.

Which UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) does your work most closely relate to? 

The most obvious SDGs my work addresses would be 11 (Sustainable cities and communities) and 12 (Responsible consumption and production), but there are also important implications for others that link to my work in the use of cements for pollution reduction and treatment of wastes that have resulted from past and ongoing energy generation.

What do you think is the most relevant way to measure success against the SDG(s) in your field?

This isn't just relevant to my field, but in general: it's important that progress needs to be measured holistically rather than in a fragmented way. There's a real risk that incentivising and measuring progress against one goal causes undesirable knock-on effects in other areas, and so we need to be very careful to take a broad view and assess carefully.

What methods do you use to evaluate the societal impact of your work? 

Mainly through conversations with end-users and other stakeholders, to understand their needs and their progress in improving practice in the engineering community related to the use of cements. Also, in a broader sense, chatting with people from outside the field to see how their perception of construction materials and environmental impacts have changed and become much more informed, as the media and society are now highlighting the environmental impacts of construction as a major issue globally.

How, if at all, has your research shifted given the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic? What are the trends you’ve noticed within your field?

The main trend I've noticed - and very much welcome - is a move away from travelling long distances for a very short in-person meeting. We're using teleconferencing solutions a lot better now. There's still a clear benefit, and enjoyment, from seeing people in person for more detailed and extensive discussions, but the time and resources that we used to spend travelling for short meetings are now being much better used for more productive things.

What do you believe are the most effective ways of communicating your research?

This depends very much on the audience to whom the communication is targeted. We really need a broad range of communication outlets, both traditional and new, to get information out to all the people who need it. 

Who do you prioritize reaching? ie: policymakers, educators, health professionals, the general public, etc.

This really depends on the style and level of the information that is being communicated; each stakeholder group can at certain times become the most important to reach, and at other times may be less critical. A key group is the people who have the authority to write the rules that engineers and materials producers follow - for example standards bodies, asset owners, and regulators. However, probably the most essential group to reach overall is the next generation of young engineers, as they are trained and taught how to approach problem-solving in a thoughtful and creative way. If we can successfully embed attitudes of innovation and sustainability into their way of approaching their work as professionals, the coming decades will see enormous scope for young people to improve how we do things.

What do you think is the most productive way to engage with your target audience? What is it that you want your audience(s) to do with the information?

Any way that makes them think, and particularly to reconsider their assumptions about what is possible. This differs from person to person, but requires people's existing ways of doing things to be challenged.

What advice do you have for researchers who are looking for ways to make societal impact, in other words, impact beyond their scholarly circle/academia?

Don't be shy! Go ahead and tell people what you do, you'd be surprised who gets excited by it.

What support do you feel is needed by early career researchers to maximize their societal impact?

Senior academics need to share their contacts and networks with early career researchers, so they can get a foot in the door - and then trust them to do a good job of representing a group or department in continuing to build relationships. 

Should the funding of research be more strongly tied to demonstrable societal impact? Why? 

I have really mixed feelings about this one, because the current situation is very different in different countries. I don't think all of the research should be "challenge-driven" - and I think schemes like the ERC grants (which funded my research for a number of years) are an extremely valuable chance to do fundamental science without necessarily needing to worry about an applications focus. Maybe interestingly, some of my work that has had the greatest impact has come from that ERC Starting Grant project which wasn't particularly conceived with impact generation in mind! We of course need to ensure that what we are doing is in some way useful to society to provide funders with a return on their investment - but if usefulness becomes a sole (or even primary) criterion, we'd lose all the exploratory nature of fundamental science, and that is where the really big and radical advances can come from.

What advice do you have for researchers working to tailor their research grant applications with societal impact in mind?

Do good research, and the impact will flow organically.

What do you see as the role of publishers when it comes to addressing the SDGs? How can they best support researchers?

Flexibility in publication routes, access options for articles that meet the needs of end-users, researchers, and funders (not necessarily in that priority order), and clear routes to identifying and accessing top quality research.

Visit Springer Nature's Sustainable Materials dedicated page under SDG12: Responsible Consumption and Production to find out more.

About John Provis

John Provis is a Professor of Cement Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Sheffield. He was awarded the 2013 RILEM Robert L’Hermite Medal "in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the research and development of geopolymers and other construction materials", and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Hasselt University, Belgium, in 2015 to recognise his leadership in the development of geopolymers and other novel cementitious materials.


Author: Guest contributor

Guest Contributors include Springer Nature staff and authors, industry experts, society partners, and many others. If you are interested in being a Guest Contributor, please contact us via email: