One look at any news website will teach you this: we are facing major challenges over the next decades of the 21st century. Global warming research shows a bleak and unstable future ahead. Nonrenewable resources will be depleted. Increasing human population on this planet will place even a larger demand on the resources of the planet...
While some countries are taking the lead to move towards a circular economy in the low-carbon and most likely degrowth era, the global community and political leaders are hesitant to flip the switch and change the status quo.
Now, you may wonder if Auntie Eva is on a political rant today. Don't worry - I am here to raise awareness on how you as a researcher can use your creative skills to make a small contribution to what the 21st century will look like. Regardless of your field of study, you can contribute. If you are a full professor, not shackled by tenure restraints, I would like to invite you to set aside part of your time to work on tackling these big challenges. Climate scientist, political scientist, engineer, psychologist - your point of view is necessary, and I firmly believe that we will need interdisciplinary solutions to solve the challenges ahead.
It's unlikely that you will wake up tomorrow with The Idea that will solve one of the major issues. But with deliberate practice, and setting aside time frequently to think about how you can contribute, we may all inch forward to solutions.
Here is what you can do on a regular basis to use your creative thinking for the greater good:
Place your research in the bigger picture. Besides your field, where else could your methods be applied? Can your research results be turned into policy recommendations? Which greater good does your research serve, and how can you make sure the outcome of your research will actually be set to work?
Be active in your community. Don't try to be Professor-Messiah, but see how you can gain the trust of a larger group of people around you. Can you help them understand popular science claims in the news, or debunk a fake science article that is going viral on social media? See how you can put your knowledge to work at the local level, and inspire those around you.
At a professional level, see if you can join interdisciplinary working groups or committees, where you brainstorm together on how to tackle bigger problems. You can work together with colleagues at your institution to see how to reduce the footprint of your institution as a whole. You can work in local groups, to see how you as a team can come up with solutions for pressing issues at a local and/or national level.
Be informed about the state of the world. Read broadly about topics related only tangentially to your research. Remember that reading sparks creativity - you may get a good idea to combine your work with something from another discipline. Use smaller side projects to explore different possibilities for interdisciplinary solutions.
Serve those around you and your students by educating them and, if necessary, help them trust science and scientists again. See if you can educate at different levels - by visiting schools, writing blog posts about topics related to science, or by giving a well-funded perspective at a speaking opportunity.
If you want to better frame your research in the recommended pathways for the future, check how your work can contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. Read about the goals, and think about how you can frame your work within these goals, and how you can contribute to sustainable development through your research.
Things don't have to remain the same forever. Question the choices we make because "everybody else does this" or because "I've always done things like this". You don't need to work on the same research topic your entire life. You can explore more interdisciplinary collaborations to see if you find that this work gives you more satisfaction and leads to more actionable items. You can question the way your institution uses natural resources. You can prod politicians about the decisions they have made in the past and continue to support. Keep a fresh mind and stay creative - at all levels.