“It was time for me to say: Let’s have another go at it!”

For ten years, Peter Messerli was one of CDE’s two directors. As of 1 May 2020, he will lead the new Wyss Academy for Nature. In this interview, he discusses what has changed, the role played by science, what he is looking forward to – and what he will miss. In addition, CDE’s management offers a glimpse of where the journey is headed next: “Niche or mainstream? CDE’s activities will be defined by the 2030 Agenda”.

“The question isn’t whether science deals with values, but how”: Peter Messerli. Photo: Manu Friederich

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

Peter Messerli, you shaped CDE over the last 10 years together with Thomas Breu. What do you see as the biggest differences between now and then in terms of the centre?

Ten years ago, we were at a turning point: our big programme, the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) North-South, had come to an end. It had given us not only a lot of resources, but also a lot of scope for research. Already in those days, we were investigating the impacts of global change and how to bring about transformations. After the NCCR ended, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy to return to hunting for “normal” research funding. At the same time, we had several major mandates from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) that enabled us to put our knowledge into practice. But some of these mandates were also almost over.

What was that like for you?

It was a bit dizzying at times. Our predecessors and the University of Bern placed a lot of trust in us when they handed over control of the CDE “steam ship” and simultaneously named it one of the university’s strategic centres of excellence. But the pressure around whether and how we would steer the ship was palpable.

“You can’t lead an institution like CDE. You have to enable it”


What do you think has changed the most?

At first, we thought that we’d shrink down to a very small institution once the NCCR was over. But the opposite was the case: we acquired more projects and grew from a staff of about 60 back then to over 100 today. That meant we had to delegate responsibility and create new gravitational centres within CDE. You can’t just lead an institution like CDE, you have to enable it… That’s why we formed thematic research groups – our “Clusters”. Of course, there were ups and downs in the process. But I feel like we succeeded.

What was decisive in this?

In my view, the most decisive thing was the conclusion we came to in our strategy process: it’s not a matter of research here and practical implementation over there – instead, we sought to develop integrated knowledge that spans systemic scientific approaches and practical implementation. That was a crucial step towards bringing the various parts of CDE together under one roof.

“The 2030 Agenda was a revival for sustainability”


When CDE celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, you said that the centre originally occupied a niche in its research and teaching on sustainable development, but today finds itself in the mainstream. There are now a number of institutions in this field. But can we really call it mainstream?

In the last decade, we have often asked ourselves whether the term sustainable development hasn’t become such an empty phrase that it’s time to abandon the concept. Suddenly, everything was “sustainable”. But, unfortunately, we’ve also seen that global trends haven’t changed for the better. Instead, they’ve become more pronounced – whether in terms of the climate, biodiversity, or worsening inequality. However, a revival occurred at the international level with the 2030 Agenda: people had the courage again to put sustainability front and centre. The knowledge needed for this and corresponding solutions are increasingly in demand in society today.

“Science has contributed greatly to the consensus”


And yet, the climate debate shows that knowledge isn’t enough to create change. What should science do differently so that its findings have an impact?

I would put that in a broader perspective: science has nonetheless achieved a lot in terms of sustainability. It has pulled together and spoken with one voice in the debates on climate, biodiversity, and inequality. That made it possible, for example, to forge a new agreement at the 2015 climate conference in Paris, in dialogue with governments and international organizations. And it enabled the first Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and the first UN Global Sustainable Development Report in 2019. These are major successes, especially because the issues have been taken up by society – and also, in part, by politics. Science has contributed greatly to the consensus, and can build on it in the future.

So science is, by and large, on course?

Of course, there are areas in which we need to learn to adopt a new perspective. When society and political leaders say: “OK, we’re ready. But how do we address climate change without fuelling inequalities? How do we change our food systems without creating new problems?” This presents science with new questions and demands new thinking.

“We should have more courage, even when our knowledge is incomplete”


What does that mean in concrete terms?

We should have more courage, even when our knowledge is incomplete, to enter into the process of finding solutions and developing questions together with others. There are many areas in which the scientific questions only arise when you begin engaging with the problem and talking with those affected. This is especially important when it comes to wicked problems like the energy transition or the question of how we can achieve a fairer economic system. These questions are highly charged with values. To develop solutions, we need new forms of cooperation and, in the case of research, also fairer distribution between industrialized countries and the countries of the global South. We can’t simply impose our solutions on others.

“Internationally, science has received some wonderful upfield passes”


If science is going to contribute more to these debates, doesn’t it need to speak more directly and openly?

Basically, yes – but without abandoning core scientific principles of independence and understandability of argumentation. The question isn’t whether science deals with values, but how. In other words, you have to articulate which values your scientific findings refer to. And this is precisely where important foundations have been laid in the last five years – whether in terms of climate goals, the Convention on Biodiversity, the 2030 Agenda, or other agreements. These were political decisions. At the same time, they are wonderful upfield passes for science, which we can now run with.

“The current pandemic was also predicted”


At the moment, we’re hearing a lot that it’s much harder to change people’s behaviour when it comes to the climate or biodiversity, as opposed to the coronavirus crisis. The reasoning given is that COVID-19 impacts us directly and immediately, whereas the other crises still lie in the future. How can we convey the urgency of sustainable development?

The current pandemic was also predicted. Ten years ago, numerous scientists said it’s not a question of whether, but when a pandemic will strike. They were simply ignored. Now it’s here, and it’s an existential matter. When we read reports today on global warming and biodiversity loss, we’re also talking about periods of ten or twenty years before it becomes existential. So the question arises: Are we going to wait until environmental problems and rising inequalities become existential crises – or are we going to tackle them now?

“Cooperation between diverse actors is still in its infancy”


In the past three years, you co-chaired the group of scientific experts that drafted the 2019 UN Global Sustainable Development Report. Was that a high point for you as scientist?

Yes and no. It meant a chance to be a discussion partner at the highest level of governance – with the UN, and thereby with the World Bank, the EU Commission, and several governments. As experts, we found that there was, indeed, scope for us to participate in the thought process, to make contributions, and to introduce ideas for which there had scarcely been room in the past. In these discussions, it also became clear where the levers for needed change are, who can really make a difference, and how we can work together. In this way, it was indeed a high point.

And what is the “but”?

The flight level of our report is very high. Phrases like “all stakeholders should” come up a lot. Ultimately, the decisions about what gets done or not are made in individual countries, regions, and villages – with local representatives from business, technology, politics, or science. But cooperation between these diverse actors is still in its infancy. In other words, our mandate wasn’t necessarily the high point in terms of impact. So, for me it was time step down from this level and say: “Let’s have another go at it!”

“Blazing new trails with knowledge has always motivated me”


You are having another go at it – as the Director of the Wyss Academy for Nature. What are you looking forward to the most?

Taking part in changes and blazing new trails with knowledge has always motivated me. So I’m thrilled that – with the support of philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss, the University of Bern, and the Canton of Bern – we can work experimentally and test out completely new forms of collaboration on behalf of sustainable development for people and nature, including having the opportunity to make mistakes. At the same time, I’m humbled by the challenge.

What will the collaboration with CDE look like?

We can only really test the approach of the Wyss Academy in the real world. If we were to try that, hypothetically, just by parachuting in somewhere on the planet, well, we’d have no chance. That’s why the Wyss Academy is going to work in the regions where CDE has long had a presence. It will give us a chance to work with the knowledge, partnerships, networks, and trust that have been built up over the last 30 years. This exchange and collaboration with CDE will be absolutely crucial. As a new niche player, it will also be essential for the Wyss Academy to maintain contact with the “mother ship”, CDE, on a scientific level, and to receive inputs from there – as well as from the CDE members and other institutions at the University of Bern that play prominent roles in terms of sustainability.

“I remain committed to CDE and its spirit”


What will you miss the most?

I think most of all I’ll miss the people I’ve worked with day in and day out. Even though CDE is a fairly big “shop” today, I still have in mind the image of a somewhat conspiratorial, unconventional group by university standards – one who generates knowledge for a purpose: that of sustainable development. The people who work here have a clear compass in terms of values which they are ready to debate and advocate for. This spirit, in combination with creativity, makes CDE what it is. I’ve always felt very much at home in this environment – and I’ll remain connected with it. Building something like this again will be a major challenge, but it offers the chance to look and see what you might do differently – what mistakes you might have made yourself and don’t want to repeat. After all, you get a little wiser with age [laughs].



Andreas Heinimann, Thomas Breu, Sabin Bieri, Tanja Berger, Urs Balsiger. Photos: Manu Friederich

Niche or mainstream? CDE’s activities will be defined by the 2030 Agenda

Andreas Heinimann, Thomas Breu, Sabin Bieri, Tanja Berger, Urs Balsiger (CDE’s management team)

Over the last two years, we participated in laying the foundation for a new institution: the Wyss Academy for Nature. It’s establishment also means that we, as CDE, must renew ourselves to a certain degree.

While CDE may have once operated in a niche – that of developing knowledge to address challenges of sustainable development – by now we’ve arrived in the mainstream. What does this mean for CDE? Is it simply about maintaining our lead – or extending it? Do we need to look for a new niche? If so, how?

Over the past 30 years, CDE has undergone a process of evolution. We have matured from a somewhat “conspiratorial” founding group in the 1980s, one that sometimes haphazardly seized opportunities to chart new pathways, into a serious, respected player in the field of sustainable development – both nationally and internationally. Today, we find ourselves in the role of a strategically important university institution that successfully obtains mandates and projects, and whose ideas are in demand in the public arena.

We want to give new impetus to our model. Structurally, we aim to establish a broad-based strategic framework that provides CDE staff with challenging and generous scope for creativity – including professional prospects both in the middle and at the margins of the traditional academic career path. In terms of content, we aim to build on the three aspects that distinguish CDE:

1. Binding international and national partnerships

Cooperation with our partner institutions – many of them in the global South – starts with joint determination of a problem and weighing of different interpretations. However, the substance of our partnerships goes far beyond this and individual projects. Our cooperation is defined by jointly supported engagement on behalf of concrete, long-term transformations in the respective regions.

2. The context determines sustainability

The solutions we develop depend on and respond to specific sociocultural environments. Each context holds the key to its own sustainable development. Yet our approach strives to do more than just provide possible solutions for individual cases. CDE research always endeavours to make a meaningful contribution to wider, pressing challenges of the future. That is the standard we measure ourselves by.

3. Knowledge for uncertainty

In view of global challenges, science too must move out of its comfort zone. Not only scientific rigour, but also societal acceptance and political feasibility determine what knowledge is actually capable of contributing to fundamental transformations on behalf of sustainable development. Going forward, CDE will continue to engage in societal debates and help to shape them. Here, different forms of knowledge are needed: knowledge of what is (systems knowledge), knowledge of what should or should not be (target knowledge), and knowledge of how to get from what is to what should be (transformation knowledge). New alliances within science as well as with business, politics, and society will be decisive. They enable design of the innovative and transdisciplinary forms of cooperation that are needed to generate the right kinds of knowledge. Education of new students in sustainable development will play a key role in the process.

For the next five years and beyond, CDE’s field of activities will be largely defined by the 2030 Agenda. Not just by its individual goals, but also by the interactions between them. This will motivate us in our quest to generate knowledge that overcomes traditional sectoral boundaries, and strengthen our ability to innovate.

We look forward to tackling these challenges together as the “new old” CDE, continuing to test, renew, and expand our experience and achievements.