Q&A with Frans Berkhout, Future Earth Interim Director

Frans Berkhout
Frans Berkhout, Interim Director for Future Earth, in Paris. Photo: Future Earth
Jul 2013

We caught up with Prof Frans Berkhout, the new Interim Director of Future Earth, soon after he got started on July 1, 2013.

This will be the first ‘getting to know you’ interview and we hope to check back in again in several months time to take stock of progress made.

Frans, congratulations and welcome! How do you feel about this new position?

Frans - I’m really excited to take on this challenge. It’s an important moment for science to really get serious about becoming more integrated in addressing real world sustainability issues. Increasingly in science we have to show that we are addressing the problems of people.

You are not a stranger to the global change community. Could you tell us a bit about your background and how that relates to your new position at Future Earth?

Frans - That’s right, I do research on climate change and have worked in a number of large European projects and I’m a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I was also associated with the Industrial Transformation Project which was a core project of the International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP) as Chair of the Scientific Steering Committee for five years up until 2011.

So you have been involved in some way with global change research for more than a decade. What progress has been made in that time?

Frans - Great strides have been made in understanding and modelling Earth Systems, but there is an increasing awareness amongst natural scientists of the central role of people in the Earth System. We talk a lot about socio-ecological systems and the Anthropocene as a period when human activity has come to dominate many natural systems. To address this, we need to integrate knowledge from different domains and disciplines, and this remains a great challenge. In order for scientific knowledge to become part of societal responses to environmental change, scientists must work with other stakeholders to define research questions, improve our understanding and work towards solutions.

What is your vision for Future Earth and what can it realistically achieve in the next 10 years?

Frans - My vision for Future Earth is that it becomes an arena for interaction between science, societal stakeholders and funders. We need to provide a platform where the integration that is required can take place and science can find a way of working creatively with business, policymakers and civil society. This is a hugely ambitious goal. To influence the science agenda, the way in which we do science and to contribute to real solutions to sustainability on the ground is a massive agenda. But that makes it all the more exciting and worth striving for.

Future Earth seems to mean different things to different people. In your view, how can Future Earth become more than the sum of its parts?

Frans - If we are effective in creating an arena of interaction, then we will be adding something new. The interactions that we organize will be across the three basic research themes – Dynamic Planet, Global Development and Transformation Towards Sustainability. Within those themes we will work to look at targeted societal challenges to which science can contribute and work within those to create the real value of Future Earth.

By doing so we hope to demonstrate to scientists but also to funders that there is a growing need for doing science in this way and that funding needs to made available for integrated global research on major sustainability challenges.

What needs to happen in the next 18 months to translate that vision into reality? It would seem that funding is a key part of the picture.

Frans - We have several objectives. The main one is to define for the science community but also for our other stakeholders what Future Earth is. The second key objective is to involve the existing GEC projects in Future Earth. In doing this, we will be working with the existing progammes – DIVERSITAS, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), the International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP) and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP). We intend to start up some activities which will create new arenas for scientists and stakeholders to work on tough sustainability challenges together. We hope that this will generate excitement for scientists who have not traditionally been part of the global change community to join.

Finally, we will be working hard to support the creation of a permanent secretariat which should start its work at the beginning of 2015.

What are the challenges you see ahead?

Frans - The main challenge is to make Future Earth accessible, exciting and useful to scientists, while at the same time engaging positively with other stakeholders. To be effective, we need to listen carefully to the respective needs of different groups and work towards becoming the vital hub for knowledge and solutions on global sustainability.

What are your top priorities in the coming months?

Frans - The top priorities are to establish good relationships with the core projects and the Science Committee, to work towards the projects formally joining Future Earth, to start a number of new activities that lead to the creation of the arena that we’re looking for and to start discussions with funders about the resources we need to make Future Earth a reality. We also will be devoting quite a lot of time to communicating great science and the way that feeds into sustainability solutions.

Who will you be working most closely with? Where will the core team be located?

Frans - The interim Future Earth secretariat is based at the International Council for Science in Paris. The core team includes two science officers, Diana Greenslade  and Anne-Sophie Stevance. We will also be working closely with existing GEC Programme Secretariats, namely DIVERSITAS in Paris, IGBP in Stockholm, IHDP in Bonn and WCRP in Geneva. Beyond that we’re working with the International Programme Offices of the core projects and with the Future Earth science community. Finally we will be working closely with our main sponsor, the Science and Technology Alliance for Global Sustainability.

Your mandate is for 18 months to guide the transition to the permanent Secretariat. Will you hand over the reins at that point, or continue to be involved in some way?

Frans - I’ve been appointed as Interim Director for 18 months, and I am building on the excellent work of the Future Earth Transition Team, in particular the chairs Johan Rockstrom and Diana Liverman. I am leading Future Earth through the transition to a permanent secretariat and a new permanent Executive Director. We have just started the process of putting in place a permanent secretariat. I see it as my role to ensure continuity in the handover to a new secretariat and director. At that point I will return full-time to my position as professor at King’s College London. But of course over the longer-term, I will remain deeply interested and hopefully involved as a scientist in the work of Future Earth.

A big part of your role will be to manage a challenging change process. Do you have any experience in the past with such processes?

Frans - Yes, I directed national and international research programmes as well as a large research institute, the Institute for Environmental Studies at the VU University in Amsterdam. Each of these underwent change during my leadership. I see a lot of parallels with the situation now in Future Earth. There is huge anticipation and an appetite for change, and the trick will be to find interesting ways of unlocking that energy and creating something really new and exciting. A key ingredient, in my view, is to give space and support to creative people with good ideas, and to let them get on with it.

What will success look like for you at the end of your mandate?

Frans - We will have been successful if we’ve achieved a number of things. First of all, there needs to be a permanent secretariat with a new director in place. The core projects need to be clearly affiliated to Future Earth. We need to have started some new initiatives, we need to have communicated clearly to all our stakeholders what Future Earth is and what it is not. And finally we need to have attracted new resources into Future Earth research and engagement.

So people can get to know you a bit better, could you give us a bit of background about yourself? Where did you grow up? Which country do you call home? Where do you go to relax?

Frans - Both my parents were Dutch but I was born and brought up in East and West Africa, mainly in Nigeria. I have a strong affinity for Africa and I am proud to say that my father is a chief from Ife in Yorubaland. I spent most of my youth and early career in the UK and more recently have lived in Holland for nine years. I trained as a geographer and did my PhD in policy science. I am based in London now, but in the next 18 months I expect to be leading a nomadic life centred on building up the Future Earth community. What I love doing most in my spare time is walking in mountains.

Last question: what’s top of your bedside reading pile these days?

Frans - I have two books I’m reading right now. “Eichmann in Jerusalem” by Hannah Arendt because I saw the movie recently. And “Love and War in the Apennines” by Eric Newby because I’ve just been walking in Tuscany.