A connected world requires a connected response. Photo: Globaia/IGBP
May 2014

Frans Berkhout, interim Director of Future Earth, responds to a recent piece on the UKCDS blog, in which Ian Thornton, Deputy Director of UKCDS, considers the value of international research coordination.

Ian Thornton’s blog piece raises some important questions about the value of international coordination of global change and development research. I agree with him that the value of coordination is often hard to measure, but fundamentally disagree that it is not possible to state what coordination achieves.

At a time when we understand that environmental problems and sustainable solutions are global and connected, we need to build a science and innovation system that is global and connected. To create such a system requires significant global coordination; it does not appear out of thin air. National coordination efforts, like UKCDS, are part of that, but we know that without strong coordination at the international level, we will fall short. That is why the International Council for Science (ICSU), the International Social Science Council (ISSC) and a range of UN bodies decided to launch Future Earth in 2012. UK science and UK agencies should be part of that effort, and there has been significant support and enthusiasm from the UK for Future Earth, as demonstrated at a recent event held by the Royal Society and the British Academy in London.

Future Earth is a new international platform for global change and sustainability research, but it builds on over 30 years’ experience within global change research programmes like the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP). We therefore know very well what coordination achieves. Much of the work of global environmental assessments, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has rested on the work of global change programmes. The central climate projections of the IPCC (the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP) series) have been coordinated by WCRP over the years.

But we now recognise that we need to go further. We know that food, water, energy and all the other securities that matter at the global level are systemic and connected. And this means that we need to bring together the different disciplines to work on more systematic, cross-disciplinary understandings, in particular through the integration of a well-founded understanding of people and institutions.

We also recognise that the impact of science on promoting sustainable solutions to building well-being, securities and resilience has not been what it might be. We therefore need to build new global partnerships between research and action in the co-design and co-production of knowledge. So Future Earth has two main objectives: to enable more integrated scientific research; and to promote new ways of producing useful knowledge around key sustainability challenges.

To do this, Future Earth – including its constituent programmes and projects – performs six main functions:

  • Convening science: it brings together international communities of scientists in major meetings and conferences in which the state of scientific knowledge is discussed and furthered. One example is the Earth System Governance conference at the University of East Anglia at the beginning of July. All are welcome!
  • Agenda-setting in science: International global change programmes have been deeply influential in setting scientific agendas that shape the funding priorities of the major research funders. Funders want to know that they are spending their scarce resources on the right priorities. Science is an international activity, and sustainability science needs to be oriented to global and connected problems. Global coordination of research agendas is therefore essential. Future Earth is currently engaged in a major effort to develop – for the first time – a global Strategic Research Agenda, addressed to funders, which will be launched in October 2014.
  • Frontier science: If we are trying to understand global problems, we often need to work internationally on data collection, modelling and analysis. There are many examples of scientific breakthroughs in global change science that have only been possible through international collaboration. One example is the 2K consortium to reconstruct global temperature records over the past 2000 years across different world regions – a project created and coordinated by the Past Global Changes project. It established for the first time that the so-called medieval warming was a regional not a global phenomenon. Crucial to our understanding of past and future climate, and impossible to do without strong international coordination.
  • Communicating science: Communication plays a crucial role in increasing the impact of science in public and policy debates. One example of high-impact communication is the Global Carbon Budget, produced annually by the Global Carbon Project, which generates major news stories across the world. This impact is possible precisely because it is the coordinated output of hundreds of scientists working together internationally.
  • Engaging policy: Many of the greatest environmental challenges – stratospheric ozone depletion, climate change, biodiversity loss, and water and food security – are shaped by policies at the international level. Decision makers rely on the latest science in developing those policies, and the global change programmes convene the relevant scientific communities to engage these fora. It’s often unglamorous work, but someone has to do it.
  • Mobilising capacity: We know that not all research systems around the world are equal. It is often in those regions that suffer the most as a result of global change that the weakest scientific capacity exists. Global programmes have played a crucial role in developing talent in these lower-income countries, by linking these scientists to international networks where they develop new skills, confidence, and the power to make an impact, locally and internationally.

At Future Earth we are working to define a set of longer-term ‘success factors’ and metrics that will allow us to evaluate whether we have been effective across these different functions. Beyond the existing benefits of international coordination, we need to make real strides on the objectives of integration and engagement with society in producing useful knowledge.

I believe the real question for the UK research system is how to contribute to this hugely-significant new initiative. Future Earth is an open arena. If you have ideas for strengthening what we are doing, we are always keen to go where the energy is. The experience of UKCDS, who convene and coordinate funders at the national level, is invaluable. We need to learn from others and work with partners worldwide, in order to make an impact globally.