2 - Interdisciplinarity for the long-term, targeting resources

This is a proposal for scholars from every subject area to accept the creation of a working group on the vast problematiques of public goods [1]and resources in order to adapt their uses to a more human, more sustainable, less inegalitarian vision of the world which would show greater respect for the environment. The working group will participate in the creation of the “Interdisciplinary Institute for Resources and Public Goods”. The Institute will be involved in teaching and research focusing on this problematique, and its dissemination throughout the academic world and society.

In concrete terms, although comprehending and optimizing all resources represent extremely urgent tasks, the implementation of vast bodies of optimized resources in order to ensure their rational and integrated management constitutes the real societal challenge.

This challenge requires a convergence of knowledge and the reciprocal exchange of know-how. The cross-fertilization of the concrete and the conceptual can give rise to new spaces for the redefinition of the perimeters of public goods, their more globally just attribution and the rational and integrated management of resources in their entirety. This is why, in the present situation, this problematique should be placed before all the other major issues which it can include and for which it provides essential foundations (biodiversity, climate warming / disturbance, energy crisis etc). For some time, concerning these issues, people have been talking of food sovereignty, energy or climate security, etc. as the new political frontiers.

Science and technology – the dark side of the profession

The extraordinary appropriation of the planet by humans has been accompanied by devastating extraction affecting every resource, resources which are exploited with no consideration for the environmental and/or social costs. The paradox of the current situation resides in the fact that we are capable of understanding the biosphere, its resources and the mechanisms which subtend it from the molecular to the ecosystem levels, but this understanding of the subtle and fragile dynamics and equilibria has no impact on “business as usual”. It has been said that the market is incapable of telling the ecological truth [2].

However, ecology is the conceptual frame of reference for many public goods and many resources. But the relationship between the dominant policy and public goods is a little strained and the economy is in conflict with the laws of the biosphere, its support system and its resource system : the environment and the resources are thought of as being part of the economy. This results in a process of capturing and monopolizing resources / wealth.
One can discern an implicit contradiction between our mode of development and the ethical demands of equality and dignity – a state of affairs that even endangers the fundamental rights of citizens. The most glaring inequalities concern the rural world, which concentrates social injustice, economic and environmental inequalities and the consequent rapid weakening of agriculture and farming communities [3]. A real anthropological crisis (see for example http://www.droit-aliments-terre.eu and the blog http://leblogdefrancoisdutilleul.blogspot.com).

Science and technology have accompanied and often amplified this evolution. Let’s take a look at life sciences, defined broadly, with a long list of ethical and socio-economic abuses or crises ; or mathematics applied to finance against a backdrop of a jittery and impulsive computerized economy, or the “multidisciplinary” race in military research ; or the very recent race for the conquest of Arctic riches.

This situation directly affects the very problematiques of research, their funding and the direction of technological development. It is also clear that society wonders about the links between science and scientists on the one hand and power, the market, and democracy on the other. As Etienne Klein said (Galilée et les Indiens, Flammarion, 2008), one has to go back in time to the Second World War to see science becoming “a sort of global power which is simultaneously technical, industrial, economic and military”. Since then, “through the controversies which the applications of science give rise to, the question posed today is nothing less than the political issue of the project for society, its ends : socially what do we want to do with the knowledge and “power-to-do” which science offers us ?

Use them all on principle or in the name of progress, or choose on a case by case basis ?” [4] Indeed, “Europe […] calculates more than it thinks”. It is obvious that, since the 1960s, the countries composing the OECD have not built a society of knowledge, but a “society of technology use, a world standardized by the usefulness of knowledge”. In other words, science is permanently constructing itself through public missions that evolve, its deontological rules that fade or yield, and its very ethics, which the interplay of short-term economic and political interests calls into question. Science and technology have thus let humanity slide towards untenable developments, on several levels : economic, ecological, social and cultural.

What can scientists do today ?

“The world looks so different after learning science”, Bruce Alberts said in his editorial for the December 2008 issue of Science. At a time when politicians agree that the future of Europe is written in its universities (the society of knowledge), one can ask (again) what purpose and which people do the university, its knowledge, its philosophy, its public research and its intellectual property serve. Which meaning and which finality for human existence enlighten our science ? Who can still trace the major directions of societal evolutions in a world in which globalization and privatization have destructured politics ? [5]
Until satisfactory answers are provided to these questions, the working group considers that the current course of development is not the right one. It is thus important to collectively participate in the emergence of a new project. Achieving this requires a coherent and synergetic rethinking of its constituent, fundamental elements : public goods and resources.

The collective evaluations and recommendations of the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA, http://www.maweb.org/en/index.aspx), the 2007 IPCC expert group on climate change, oceanographers (Monaco Declaration, February 2009), the various studies of biodiversity undertaken in 2010, as well as the expert “Pesticide” assessment carried out by the INRA agricultural research institute, have all paved the way forward by successfully galvanizing actors from politics, institutions and civil society in favour of action on problems of the utmost urgency for the future. It is important to maintain this impetus, which is why the working group will investigate the following aspects which must be taken as a whole :

  • 1. Thinking and acting globally, in terms of interdisciplinarity, and applying “borderless” ethics to public teaching and research7 [6] ;
  • 2. Focusing training and defining the thematic priorities of public research in such a way as to place public goods and resources at the heart of public policies.
    These integrated approaches, a sort of permanent collective assessment, should enable a better understanding of the dynamics and the meaning of development in our societies. This knowledge is essential in order to radically, culturally and politically change the current model of society. This represents a challenge and a mission for the university world.

Thinking and acting globally – exploring interdisciplinarity in order to structure and contextualize knowledge and make rational societal and technological choices

We excel in segmented thinking and acting. The move towards a global coherence, within a clear and objective comprehension of the issues, to facilitate collective actions, to give focus and meaning to social and environmental debates and conflicts, cannot be envisaged without a major participation of the university world. Academic freedom, the inextricable association of teaching and research, of fundamental research and its applications, the juxtaposition of various subject areas and the inclusion in both local and global problematiques, are best expressed in a collective commitment of the academics and researchers themselves.

This assuming of collective responsibility seeks to encourage an improved relationship between democratic legitimacy and public scientific expertise. How ? By using this interdisciplinarity as a form of ultimate academic liberty and as an interface between civil society and the systems of governance. Whatever the scenario, this approach will have consequences for our way of collectively apprehending the meaning of limits, of adhering to values which structure the collective interest, of inciting structural and long-term decision-making at the political level.

Assistance in political decision-making – giving priority to a collective approach in order to appropriate the complete and integrated analysis and assessment of public goods and resources

Science is a common good and a resource, which possesses an extraordinary particularity – it can embrace as its object of study or research every other good and every other resource.

Science and society, science and liberty are fragile couples, wherein lies the need for universities and research structures to act as the crossroads of both civil society and the political and economic world, not only for the dissemination of knowledge, but also for the definition of the objectives of public interest : guiding societal expectations, facilitating the funding of projects emerging from civil society, showing that everything is interlinked and that the credible levels of expertise are to be found in bringing disciplines together.

Calls for interdisciplinary projects are part of the current situation, but there is no real unifying theme putting interdisciplinarity at the service of a project for society. Neither the European Research Council, nor the Comité de pilotage de la Stratégie Nationale de Recherche et d’Innovation (research strategy steering committee [7], nor the Grenelle de l’environnement seem to go far enough in this direction. More recently, a progressive awakening of awareness has been heralded by such events as : the initiatives of the INRA agricultural research institute (the consultation entitled “Eclairer et anticiper : les fonctions d’expertise et de prospective” (Enlightening and anticipating : the assessment and forecast functions)) or the report submitted to President Sarkozy by the commission presided by Nobel prize-winners Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen (Sept 14, 2009 ; the report recommended the changing of measurement tools in order to encourage a new form of economic development – sustainable, more egalitarian, and more respectful of the environment).

In this context, the first objective of the working group will be the creation of the Interdisciplinary Institute for Resources and Public Goods. The institute will work towards synergizing prominent societal priorities, by involving itself in structured programs in which the transversal problematique is constituted by public goods and the entire range of resources with the aim of integrating them into public development strategies.

Let’s take resources as an example. Relatively specific resources represent objects of study for one subject area or another and therefore constitute a common conceptual denominator of the first order between various disciplines. In the case of natural resources, analysis is shared between geography, geology and biology. This situation has always favoured a natural dialogue between these subject areas and has often facilitated convergence or thematic synergies. Amongst others, their interdisciplinary research could lead to analytical tools enabling the assessment of the state of these resources and the comprehending of their dynamic mechanisms in order to gauge the socio-economic and environmental viability (or vulnerability) of territories. This modus operandi remains applicable to any other association of disciplines. On the whole, this approach should facilitate the search for alternative development strategies and be of assistance in political and economic decision-making.

From this perspective, from the outset, the Interdisciplinary Institute for Resources and Public Goods should integrate specialist skills in philosophy, the history of science and the communication sciences in order to provide the whole with the necessary critical distance and coherence for the research undertaken to be disseminated and shared with the general public.

Associated pedagogical projects

In the appropriation approach presented above, the training dimension is an integral part with acute current relevance. What knowledge should we teach to the present generations of students ? Every science is concerned, but, at present, the example of economics is one of the most eloquent : the issue being the repeated failure of economics (at least in the fields of macro-economics and financial economics) as a branch of knowledge [8].

To facilitate transversal movements and dialogues between disciplines, there is a call for the generalization of lessons of the “Science and Society” type as well as courses in each subject area that analyze the conceptual and methodological developments which are supposed to participate in the evolutions of society. An example to illustrate this can be seen in the book by François Gros of the Académie, Une biologie pour le développement (Ed. EDP Sciences), presented at BioVision 2009, in Lyon. All the above outlines the entire ethical dimension of this approach[[See, for example, on the environmental ethics issue, March 2010 : Ethique et environnement a l’aube du 21ème siècle (Ethics and environment at the dawn of the 21st century), http://vertigo.revues.org/9810
“In a context marked […] by major deteriorations affecting natural milieus […], or by the rarefaction of resources [which are] inequitably distributed in space […], the domain of the definition of choices and the construction of economic or political decisions cannot be considered without reflection on the contours of a new environmental ethics to confront new environmental risks and determine the adequate responses for ourselves and for future generations. This perspective implies reflection on the definition of new principles of action likely to modify the behaviour of actors, by taking into account the temporality of long-term choices (infra- and inter-generational), the spatial scales within which natural phenomena operate, the irreversibility associated with the alteration of certain environmental resources or the complexity of the interactions at stake”.
See also : J-F Pierron, Penser le développement durable, 2009, Ellipses.

Students who have thus been prepared for and made aware of transversal issues will be invited to participate in the work of the Interdisciplinary Institute for Resources and Public Goods in order to learn how to communicate and work in interdisciplinary environments. The IXXI at Lyon (http://www.ixxi.fr) and DYLAN (http://www.dylan-project.org, an international and interdisciplinary EU project), can serve as models.

The construction of competences and the concerted appropriation of knowledge concerning public goods and resources by the academic world with a view to disseminating this knowledge throughout society via multiple channels constitute the second objective of the working group.


This public goods and resources approach, which is here proposed to the academia, is a “great challenge”. It calls for a coherent all-embracing vision of the production of intersecting knowledge about human societies. The intention is to put science at the service of society for both the short and long terms while increasing awareness of issues related to public goods. It is also aimed at facilitating a better definition of the progress we want, through better guidance of the finalities and proper use of technologies. The optimization and phased management of resources constitute a transversal fundamental research project, one that covers every subject area and the full range of investigation from the interface of objects to in-depth analysis. It is therefore of obvious societal interest even if the definition and pedagogy of societal expectations have yet to be established.

This project aims at encouraging the making of clearer choices in the organization and funding of science : governments should fix their strategic priorities according to their policies, industrialists should finance R&D, and society should attend to the production of knowledge, keeping it in perspective so as to redefine the areas of available possibilities and to formulate our questions and ideas about the future and the collective project for tomorrow.


The points of view expressed here owe much to the contributions and/or encouragements of Paul Arnould, Olivier Faron, Christian Henriot, Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz, Yves-François Le Lay, Marie-Claude Maurel, Michel Morvan, Violette Rey and Michel Serres. But also to discussions with Etienne Klein and Guillaume Lecointre. I would particularly like to thank the members of the young pedagogical team of the Biodiversity and Biological Resources module at ENS who bravely undertook the analysis-inventory of natural resources : Florian Douam, Morgane Ollivier, Emmanuel Pasco and Jonathan Schnabel. Last but not least, I would like to thank Nigel Briggs for the English version of this text.


“In economics, a public good is a good that is non-rival and non-excludable. Non-rivalry means that consumption of the good by one individual does not reduce availability of the good for consumption by others ; and non-excludability that no one can be effectively excluded from using the good” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_good).

The control of epidemics and national defence are archetypal public goods.

The notion of the public good is one of four categories arising from a definition in terms of rivalry and excludability. The three other categories are : club goods (non-rivalrous, excludable) ; common goods (see below) or impure public goods (rivalrous, non-excludable) ; and private goods (rivalrous, excludable).

In a finite and technically evolving world these two conditions (rivalry and excludabilty) are rarely absolute. Each good is a socio-historical and economic construct which may be situated within a continuum ranging from the purely private to the pure global public good.

According to the evolution of conditions, a same good may be a pure public good (well above thresholds) or an impure public good (a threshold has been crossed marking the appearance of rivalry or possibly excludability) : as a freely accessible public good may be subject to wastage, the spontaneous evolution of the situation can easily approach the threshold beyond which the public good becomes a common good with its different attendant issues of management.

The term global public good is also used to designate public goods which are available over very large areas (for example : the quality of the air, biodiversity, the global climate situation…), although this notion is subject to virulent criticism and is far from stable and unified. The idea of global public goods was invented by the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) in 1999. It is an ecological and humanistic vision based on the fact that current consumption of natural resources does not enable sustainable development and poses the question of the survival of future generations.

Ref. L’avancée des biens publics - Politique de l’intérêt général et mondialisation, Bernard Gazier, Collectif, 2006 Albin Michel Collection : bibliotheque d’économie

Common goods. Everything which is subject to shared, even free use. The tragedy of common goods is a class of economic phenomenon which describes the competition for access to a limited resource leading to a conflict between private interest and the common good. The expression became popular through an article written by Garrett Hardin published in Science in 1968, "The Tragedy of the Commons". The original text describes how free access to a limited resource in high demand inevitably leads to its over-exploitation and final disappearance (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons). Finding a solution to the tragedy of the commons constitutes one of the recurring problems of political philosophy but the awarding of the 2009 Nobel Prize for economics to Elinor Ostrom (with her Understanding Knowledge as a Commons) poses the question of the commons in terms of collective meaning, places of expression and negotiation of society.

The commons. Subject to common use. The tragedy of the commons is a metaphor for the public goods problem that it is hard to coordinate and pay for public goods (http://economics.about.com/od/economicsglossary/g/tragedy.htm). The Drama of the Commons, 2002, National Research Council USA, (⚠️ <html>http://search.nap.edu/nap-cgi/de.cgi?term=the+drama+of+the+commons&x=0&y=0</html>).

Common pool resources (CPR) are characterised by the difficulty of excluding actors from using them and the fact that the use by one individual or group means that less is available for use by others. (The latter point distinguishes CPR from pure public goods which exhibit both non excludability and non rivalry in consumption). CPRs include some fisheries, irrigation systems and grazing areas.

Resources. These are natural, human, economic and institutional resources and knowledge. These contents are very varied, covering the range from very material resources such as the production of agro-ecosystems, energy, biodiversity, population dispersal patterns… to the most varied human resources, to the most immaterial such as institutional resources. In 1910, T. Roosevelt said “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value” (http://www.todayinsci.com/R/Roosevelt_Theodore/RooseveltTheodore-Quotations.htm).

In 1992, the resource question was clearly posed at the Rio summit. Today it is systematically evoked in every sphere of activity and decision-making.

In part, the economy can be defined as the transformation of resources with the assistance of energy (Enjeux, Les Echos, Nov 2009, p. 40).

It should also be noted that in the philosophy of Akeel Bilgrami (Heyman Center for the Humanities, Columbia University) the swing from the concept of “nature” to “natural resources” represents a central issue.

Article publié ou modifié le

13 juin 2012


[1In the main, the initiatives have been rather limited : there has been a proposal to insert a public services charter “charte des services publics” (www.referendum-servicespublics.fr) into the French Constitution. In the United States, one could mention Science next : Innovation for the common goods (www.americanprogress.org) or Science in the Public Interest (see CSPIin Washington, as a non-profit watchdog). The issue of climate as a global public good remained behind the scenes at the Copenhagen Summit (Libération, 6 Dec 2009, p. XXIV)

[2L Brown, www.earthpolicy.org/Books/PB3/index.htm and for France the report entitled “Approche économique de la biodiversité et des services liés aux ecosystems”, April 2009. The question of the relationships between the economy and its environmental foundation is posed in terms of the market value of nature : the services provided by the biosphere and the regeneration of renewable resources.

[3See, in particular : the study by the Conseil Economique et Social, Faim dans le Monde et Politiques Agricoles et Alimentaires : Bilan et Perspectives, 2008 ; an update in Libération Oct 15, 2009. See also the EU EAGLES 2008 project and the Forum BioVision Lyon, 2009. An example of speculation on the prices of foodstuffs : 140 funds partially or totally indexed on the prices of agricultural raw materials were launched during February 2008, in the EU alone (Libération, May 13, 2008). More generally consult “Pour une exception de citoyenneté”, William Bourdon, in Libération Dec 24-26, 2010, p. XVI.

[4The strong temptation of a political management of research suggests not only misplaced mistrust of the academic world within the political world but also illustrates the tendency of the political world to gravitate towards a short-term approach to social evolutions and a particularly close link between political deciders and the corporate lobbies of the CAC40. The world of politics asks scientists to put themselves at the service of “societal expectations / social commands” as well as the market economy. This would appear to be legitimate. But via which channel should this command come, who should decipher it and give it meaning ?

[5See, for example : Les grands dossiers des sciences humaines 10 (2008) Florence Motto, “L’histoire a-t-elle encore un sens ?”, pp. 44-47 and Edgar Morin, in “Que reste-t-il de l’universel européen ?”, Libération, Nov 27, 2009, p. 23.

[6For a different point of view, see the article by J. Testart, “Qui expertisera les scientifiques ?”, in Le Monde Diplomatique, Dec 2010, p. 13

[7http://www.enseignementsup-recherche.gouv.fr/cid22707/installation-du-comite-de-pilotage-de-la-strategie-nationale-de-recherche-et-d-innovation.html (Oct 13, 2008). In particular, the committee had to identify the major socio-economic questions which our research should be able to answer. These issues can be grouped into four main categories : societal challenges, the challenges of knowledge, the challenges linked to the mastering of key technologies and the operational challenges which enable the optimization of the interaction between the different actors involved in the areas of research and innovation. These challenges were to be investigated in depth within working groups from early November 2008 to March 2009. The resultant studies were subjected to debate during a broad consultation of the scientific community, the world of business and other key actors in order to elaborate a final report. The national research strategy was presented by Valérie Pécresse to the Council of Ministers in March 2009. See also, on the MESR (research and higher education ministry) website : Quels projets pour le grand emprunt national ? (Which projects for the great national loan ?), the Oct 6 seminar inspired by the national research and innovation strategy ; ⚠️ <html>http://www.enseignementsup-recherche.gouv.fr/cid49046/programme-seminaire-de-reflexion-snri-quels-projets-pour-le-grand-emprunt-national.html?preview=1</html>)

[8Survey in L’Echo, Oct 10-12, 2009 / Qui peut encore croire un économiste ? (Who can still believe an economist ?) “… Over the last ten years, most Nobel Prizes for economics have been awarded to scientists who call into question the hypothesis of the efficiency of the markets” – apparently without giving rise to either in-depth reflection into or revision of the relevant economic theories. This raises questions about the university system in general and the weight of the dominant teaching model of the subject at a time when universities are subservient to the economy.
See also : Tom Schmitz, “HEC, école de l’acquiescement au libéralisme” (HEC, or learning to assent to liberalism), in Libération, Dec 3, 2010, p. 23.