Future Earth Finland was launched a year ago to mobilize Finland’s research community and set the agenda for integrated global-change science in Finland as part of a new partnership between researchers, research funders and society.
Achieving sustainability in a world subject to global change requires understanding the links among environmental and societal change. Challenges related to resilience, governance models, resource efficiency, technology, business, trade, equity, and poverty are interlinked: a change in one component will cascade to many others. Understanding this big picture of global challenges is crucial, but finding solutions that work in different national and local contexts will require granular knowledge and collaboration to influence research agendas – and research funding – at the national level.
In May, the first Future Earth Finland Townhall meeting gathered over 60 participants to discuss global change research priorities in Finland. Participants represented different fields of science from universities and research institutes, and included stakeholders from ministries, private companies, interest group organizations, and NGOs.
The day started with presentations of global change as a phenomenon, with Professor Heinz Gutscher presenting the Future Earth Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) and its eight focal challenges. Participants were then divided into groups of 5-10 and charged with the task of discussing three main questions:
1. What are the key global change questions in Finland based on the Future Earth SRA?
2. How should these key points be studied: what kind of science do we need?
3. What kind of funding and what kind of structures would help to best support solutions-oriented research on these issues?
The discussion was lively and participants appreciated this opportunity to give input to Future Earth Finland’s agenda. Each group also provided a question for the final panel discussion.
Participants emphasized the importance of an integrated approach to interlinked challenges at the global level, but national efforts were also considered important, since we can most easily influence funding and strategies at the national level. Topical global change challenges from the Finnish perspective included protecting the Baltic Sea, developing a sustainable energy policy, and considering urban-rural dynamics.
The participants strongly believed that research should be co-designed with the stakeholders of scientific knowledge. Involvement of private, public and civic sectors from all levels (local, regional and national) is crucial in order to ensure maximum societal impact. However, scientists need support and guidance in co-design methods from people in fields that have more experience of this approach. Moreover, effective research co-design requires greater understanding of and more training on participatory methods.
Finally, participants pointed out that efficient global change research requires a new, long-term funding strategy and a strong institutional setting. Voluntary research without funding can only take us so far and will never be sufficient to mobilize large numbers of grass-roots scientists. National funding programs should collaborate and frame research questions and funding programs together to support international global change research following the example of, for instance, the European Commission’s Joint Programming Initiatives (JPIs) and ERA-NETs. In Finland, the biggest research councils and private foundations should look for opportunities to collaborate. Collaboration with business and industry is also an important way to seek for new ways of funding global change research.
Future Earth Finland will take all these considerations into account when planning its future activities. The key issues identified during the Townhall will act as starting points for future events and research projects. National efforts to adapt and implement the Future Earth Strategic Research Agenda are crucial, since many sustainability decisions are made at the national level, and solutions-oriented research requires long-term trusting relationships between local scientists and stakeholders.
However, in order for these national efforts to amount to an internationally influential global change research movement, the global Future Earth team needs to meet the countries half-way and work very hard to establish supporting structures and funding mechanisms on the international level. A necessary action to take is to link Future Earth with existing structures such as the European Commission’s Horizon2020 programme, JPIs and ERA-NETs, and to start co-designing a European agenda with them.
The upcoming European regional workshop taking place in November in Innsbruck, organized by the European Alliance of Global Change Research Committees, is a step to the right direction and could also serve as a much-needed starting point for bringing together the national committees and projects transitioning into Future Earth.
The Finnish Future Earth Townhall meeting was supported by the University of Helsinki (Department of Physics, Division of Atmospheric Sciences), the Maj and Tor Nessling Foundation, the Council of Finnish Academies, and the FP7 programme PE2020 - Public Engagement Innovations for Horizon 2020.