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Visioning: Towards a new initiative for global sustainability research

The Earth System Visioning process concluded in February with participants at the third and final meeting agreeing on key elements for a new initiative that will address the Grand Challenges for Earth System Science—delivering knowledge to enable societies to meet their sustainable development goals in the next decade.

The initiative will be a joint integrated research strategy that is expected to unify most of the existing global environmental change research structures (including Diversitas, IGBP, IHDP, ESSP and possibly some components of WCRP), and fully engage START.

The development of the initiative has entered a fast-moving phase that will see the current research structures transition to the unified framework. A Transition Team will be established to guide the development process in the  lead-up to the two-stage launch in 2012—at the Planet Under Pressure conference in March and the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in June.

More than 40 participants from around the world convened for the visioning meeting; debating and discussing three main areas: framing the initiative, design criteria and goals.

A new partnership

‘The scientific community, research funders and users need to work in close partnership to understand how to adapt in this rapidly changing world’, said Johan Rockström, Executive Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and current chair of the Visioning Task Team. ‘and co-designing is one key feature of this initiative’. Funders are strongly engaged in the initiative, together with ICSU and the International Social Science Council (ISSC). Tim Killeen, co-Chair of the Belmont Forum, Council of Principals for the International Group of Funding Agencies for global change research (IGFA) said ‘We look forward to launching the initiative shoulder to shoulder next year’.

The Social Contract

The link between science and society is a central point of the initiative, that aims at accelerating the delivery of the science-derived knowledge required by society to address environmental change. ‘We need a new social contract for transformation, where science has to play an eminent role’ said John Schellnhuber, Director of the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact research. Establishing and maintaining a fruitful dialogue with decision-makers is fundamental to produce solution-oriented research. ‘People’s culture is central in the decision-making process’, said Anantha Duraiappah, Director of the International Human Dimensions Programme, highlighting how strongly world beliefs, views and values influence decisions.

Regional capacity

Strong and capable regional institutions can enable active engagement with regional scale users and decision makers. In this regard, ‘flexibility is essential’ said Hassan Virji, Executive Director of the Global Change System for Analysis, Research and Training (START), ‘as each region has a different reality, in terms of existing institutional strengths’. The network design would need to build on current capacity and ‘sustain a targeted effort to enhance human resource capabilities, strengthen institutions, and enable informed development pathways’.

Across a wide range of disciplines

The initiative builds on the commitment to involve a wide range of disciplines in a fully integrated way, bringing together social sciences, natural sciences and engineering. ‘This is a key distinguishing feature that contrasts with the dominant approach of the past several hundred years’, said Chad Gaffield, President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. ‘We need to face explicitly the challenges and opportunities of bringing together these distinct ways of knowing if we are to be successful.’

Guided by experience

Participants expressed their consensus on the excellent achievements of existing research programmes and projects in global environmental change. A strong engagement of the whole research community will be instrumental in designing a fully successful initiative.  ‘The vibrant energy of the broad scientific community would need to be unified under a single initiative at this time, if we want to address effectively the cross-cutting challenges we are facing’, emphasised Oran Young, Professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California.

Looking ahead

Deliang Chen, ICSU Executive Director, expressed his enthusiasm on the meeting outcome, and on the fact that some countries have already taken this approach on board. For example, the French National Research Agency will frame some of its upcoming programmes around the five Grand Challenges, implementing the key criteria of the new Initiative on Earth System Research for Global Sustainability.

The third visioning meeting was organized by ICSU, the International Social Science Council (ISSC) and the Belmont Forum (representing the International Group of Funding Agencies for Global Environmental Change Research, IGFA). Participants included representatives from the Global Environmental Change programmes (Diversitas, IGBP, IHDP, WCRP, and their partnership ESSP), partner organizations (UNEP, WMO and IOC), other co-sponsors of the GEC programmes, regional networks (APN), other related international programmes and international experts in natural and social sciences.

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