At Rio, a new contract for science?

,

China Dialogue, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Ensuring a sustainable future in the face of inter-connected, human-induced challenges to the Earth system demands a new relationship between science and society. This was the message from leading scientists gathered in Rio de Janeiro last week for the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development, a five-day session held ahead of the main event, the UN-led sustainability conference known as Rio+20.

“Our way of development is undermining the resilience of our planet,” said Yuan Tseh Lee, president of the International Council for Science (ICSU). “Scientific evidence now shows this convincingly. We must find a different path towards a safe and prosperous future. With all the knowledge and creativity we have, it is absolutely possible. But we are running out of time. We need real leadership, practical solutions and concrete action to set our world on a sustainable path.”

Around 500 scientists from 75 countries came together in the Brazilian city last week to urge that their findings be taken far more seriously when policymakers meet to indicate, if not determine, the development path the world should take.

Expert after expert underlined and presented empirical evidence to prove that we are living in a time of unprecedented global environmental, social, financial, geo-political and technological crisis. Many of them said in private they were frustrated by the way this evidence was being ignored by policymakers negotiating a resolution for the Rio+20 summit at the same time. They wanted to exert renewed pressure for science to be more relevant and effective at informing both policy and implementation.

In short, scientists are seeking a new contract between science and society. They want a relationship that can better inform policy related to sustainable development and help build societal resilience to environmental risks. Many of those who gathered for the Rio forum were also critical of the scientific community itself, agreeing that scientists continue to live in their ivory towers. Instead, they need to engage directly with society to ensure shared understanding of the new realities shaping our world, and help translate knowledge into action for sustainable development.

The forum was organised by ICSU in partnership with UNESCO, the World Federation of Engineering Organizations, the International Social Science Council, the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation and the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.

And the scientists were there to look at the greatest challenges facing the earth: how to secure food and water supplies for a fast-rising global population, how to provide energy while minimising use of coal and petroleum, how to adapt to a world at greater risk from climate change and disaster and how to do all this in more equitable ways.

One outcome of the forum was the launch of a 10-year global sustainability research initiative called Future Earth, a platform to coordinate interdisciplinary studies. Describing its significance, Lee said: “New knowledge from science must play a critical role in finding solutions through integrated research, holistic systems-oriented thinking, and a stronger commitment on behalf of science to communication, education and engagement.”

The question now is to what extent the recommendations from last week’s forum can impact the political resolution being negotiated for this week’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), popularly called Rio+20 for coming 20 years after the seminal Earth Summit in this same coastal city. The 2012 conference is being held in an atmosphere of gloom, partly due to the global economic recession and partly because so little of what was promised in 1992 has materialised. The annual Global Environment Outlook, published by the UN Environment Programme on June 6, makes that abundantly clear.

A concern repeatedly expressed at the forum was that scientists too often have a “silo mentality”, and that this is a barrier to science playing a bigger role in development policymaking. Aware of this, UNCSD chief Sha Zukang has just called for all experts to suggest “practical solutions” for policymakers to act on. By linking up different disciplines, the Future Earth programme is expected to help, especially when it comes to understanding the unintended consequences that one scientific development may have in other areas. An example discussed at the forum was biofuel development, which impacts farmland used to grow food crops as well as water availability.

One way of getting over such problems is for physical scientists and social scientists to interact far more closely than they have done so far, as has been repeatedly pointed out at recent scientific gatherings. Many participants at the Rio forum went a step further and said social scientists should be put in charge of research programmes, rather than just invited as collaborators.

Leaders from the world of social science used the forum to launch a campaign to make their work more “visible”, arguing that their research into global environmental change too often goes ignored. “Social scientists are often called upon to sell solutions found by natural scientists,” said Heide Hackmann, executive director of the International Social Science Council. Instead, she said, they should be involved in research projects from the outset. “A lot of social scientists doing this work have remained invisible. Our role is to make them visible.”

Hackmann presented an ISSC report outlining six social science questions — or “cornerstones” — which would apply to research regardless of subject. For example, applying the “interpretation and subjective sense-making” cornerstone to climate-change research would address the question: “why, in the face of decades of scientific knowledge, do we have climate change indifference and denial?” The organisation is developing good-practice guidelines to encourage social scientists to take up global change research. “We must mobilise social scientists to take the lead in reaching out to natural scientists: it's a two-way process,” said Hackmann.

Olive Shisana, president of South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council pointed out that important challenges to full integration remain. Defining integrated science, measuring quality, agreeing on shared methodology and acceptable evidence – which can differ in the natural and social sciences – are among these. But that should not mute the ambition, she said: “Social sciences should be at the centre of all sustainable development work, for the simple reason that we are dealing with human behaviour.”

Joydeep Gupta is south Asia director of thethirdpole.net.