Q&A with Mark Stafford Smith, Science Committee Chair

Mark Stafford Smith is Chair of the Future Earth Science Committee.
Jul 2013
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We sat down with Mark Stafford Smith, Chair of the Future Earth Science Committee, to ask him about his personal vision for the initiative.

Welcome! Tell us a little about yourself, what is your background? What is your research area and your current position, and can you tell us a bit about your experience in international research?

Mark - I’m currently the science director of CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation Flagship based in Canberra, Australia. It has the equivalent of about 150 people working in a very interdisciplinary way on adapting to climate change. I started out as a systems ecologist with a focus on drylands, and spent a long time based in Alice Springs in Australia, first working on arid zone ecology and then looking at peoples’ decision making, interactions between pastoral production and conservation, and finally trying to understand how regional economies work in remote areas. At the same time, I was involved with the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), initially as part of its old Global Change and Terrestrial Ecosystems Project, but later as a member of the IGBP Scientific Committee. I’m based in Canberra, where I live with my family including two sons.

You were co-chair of the Planet Under Pressure conference in March 2012, along with UNESCO’s Lidia Brito. What was that like as an experience? What did the conference achieve? Will there be another?

Mark - Planet Under Pressure was a challenging but exhilarating experience, collaborating with an extraordinary team! What was amazing about the conference was seeing such diversity of skills and perspectives coming together in the one place, trying out all sorts of novel ways of interacting. Assembling the research community for conferences like this should be one of the regular but not too frequent things that Future Earth does.

In between those major events, we should develop smaller events which have a sharp focus, say on one of the Future Earth research themes, or around a specific issue or research project. The big events we must time very carefully so they can contribute effectively to political processes.

Future Earth may seem like all things to all people.  What is your vision for Future Earth, what are the opportunities and what do you want it to achieve?

Mark - There is no doubt that Future Earth has an expansive potential agenda. The tremendous diversity of global change research is a big asset, but we also need to focus. We need to seek to be part of a global innovation system, both to contribute to learning and to be able to respond faster to global environmental changes. 

One way of thinking about this would be to use the three research themes as a lens for understanding our stakeholder needs. I see the main role of the first theme as really continuing the important existing work of the Projects, albeit perhaps with new focus.  The second and third research themes open up new opportunities, that some of the Projects have started pushing into. I am hopeful that the world will organize itself around a set of sustainable development goals in the coming years, and our work in the second theme, Global Development, could in part be about supporting the delivery of those SDGs but also to think about gaps in those goals. The third theme, which is all about transition into a different type of economy, could possibly be a place to source funding from foundations which are supportive of a significant paradigm shift. We know that major transitions have to happen, but these have a longer lead time than business as usual, so this will drive a different approach to research.

How far beyond the current GEC programmes will Future Earth go?

Mark - Future Earth has to maintain continuity with the existing global change work while opening the door to new opportunities. We would like to enable innovative bottom-up collaborations among the global change projects, to open up areas of research that we haven’t really explored enough. In doing so, Future Earth should seek expertise from new communities such as economics, engineering, history and the arts.

Another top priority is stronger engagement with decision makers who use our work. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be some basic research. But a lot more of our research needs to be clearly use-inspired and solutions-oriented. Somewhere in Future Earth we need that true, fundamental engagement which helps tell us what knowledge is really going to be useful in the next 5-10 years.

The ambition for Future Earth is enormous. Where is the money going to come from?

Mark - Getting funding for Future Earth will have a lot to do with giving decision makers the ability to respond quicker as rates of change increase. So we need to genuinely align key parts of our research better with the near-term needs of decision makers, and then you will find that they are much more prepared to pay for it.

Given the urgency to respond to some global challenges, is there more that science can do to assist the policy response?

Mark - I think that the world has a big need at the moment for coherent thinking about a “global innovation system”. National innovation systems are to a fair degree about national competitiveness. Universities and other research agencies, policymakers, industry, they are all part of an innovation system that delivers comparative advantages to countries. In this time of increasingly rapid change we need to think about this kind of system at the global scale.

We need a global innovation system which draws decision makers, researchers, industry and community bodies together, to help them recognize that they are part of a collective system. That global system needs to work efficiently to recognize upcoming problems, do the research necessary to understand how to respond to them, and, above all, have that information flow through into decision making as quickly as possible. Instead of being a competitive system as it tends to be at the national level, this global innovation system needs to be more of a collaborative undertaking – for this one globe, this one planet which we are stewards of.

There’s a great deal more that science can do to support policy responses. First by articulating the concept of a global innovation system. Second by encouraging policy-makers to establish the structures which enable that learning-into-action to happen more quickly.

What do you envisage will be the biggest challenges for Future Earth?

Mark - To be honest, the biggest challenge will be focus. We do have to, on the one hand, keep a reasonably broad church here to engage with a diversity of communities, and on the other hand do that in such a way that we don’t find our efforts dissipated in trying to get people from different communities to talk to each other. If we had a set of well-defined Sustainable Development Goals, we could use that to provide external focus, but there will be other measures we have to take internally. Staying focused will, for example, sometimes mean that work that someone thinks is really important doesn’t actually get pursued within Future Earth.

Another big challenge will be working across disciplines. That is something which we shouldn’t underrate. I’m a strong believer that we should be fairly careful about where we really want to be interdisciplinary. It carries big overheads with it. There are some problems which can be dealt with satisfactorily in a disciplinary way – in which case that is all that we should do. Then, there are other problems which will not get solved unless they are dealt with in an interdisciplinary way, and here the extra investment is worthwhile, in fact essential.

What are the priorities in the first year?

Mark - The immediate priority for Future Earth is to ensure that there is continuity for the existing projects. We don’t want to see an unintentional loss of community. So we need to design the modus operandi by which the projects move into Future Earth, while keeping our options open in terms of new activities and new communities. All the while, we have to live and breathe the intention to engage with decision makers. We have to ensure that that engagement is there from the start.

What are the metrics of success for Future Earth?

Mark - For me, success would mean that we end up with a more coherent global community, one that involves some of the skills and disciplines that currently aren’t represented in the global change programmes. It would mean that the community is more rapidly developing information for decision making, and that we have the social processes and institutions which enable a two-way transfer of critical knowledge. We need to both learn from and deliver information to decision makers.

Finally, what is top of your bedside reading pile? And what book would you recommend to someone to sum up your approach or vision for Future Earth?

Mark - I’ve just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behaviour”, which is a wonderful exposition of a non-scientist’s experience of what climate change might look like – and one particularly miraculous aspect of it having to do with butterflies. It’s full of messages for scientists about recognizing how people experience the changes that we look at from a satellite or with formal analytical methods.

Waiting by my bed now is Peter Victor’s “Managing Without Growth”. It is one of a growing number of books that try and explore a vision of how we can have a zero or low growth economy and still deliver an increasing degree of human wellbeing. This of course is one of the great challenges that the third theme of research of Future Earth – Transformation towards Sustainability – will have to tackle and deliver upon for the future of our planet.

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