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Q&A with Bob Watson: Why Future Earth needs an Engagement Committee

You’re chairing Future Earth’s interim Engagement Committee – what is it and what will it do?

Bob – It’s a committee of users of Future Earth research. It’ll focus on

  • providing strategic advice from a user perspective on Future Earth research, engagement, communications and other activities
  • supporting the initial implementation of Future Earth, in particular by supporting its work with stakeholders
  • developing recommendations on the roles and responsibilities of the permanent Engagement Committee and advise on the establishment of the full committee

Why is this an interim committee, and how long will the interim last?

Bob – We wanted a world class Engagement Committee with the best people, and the best ideas. But we needed more time to develop an open process for nomination, like the one that went into creating the Science Committee in order to ensure balance in terms of geography, gender and disciplines. So a decision was made to have an interim committee, and part of that committee’s work will involve assisting in developing the nomination process. The interim committee will be in place until at least the end of 2014. We intend to make a good start with the engagement agenda, and are keen to ensure continuity with the permanent committee. 

How did the idea for this body come about? It seems to be something of an innovation for the global change programmes, which have traditionally only had Science Commitees.

Bob – Future Earth aims to provide the scientific knowledge needed for a sustainable world through trans-disciplinary research. It would be the height of arrogance for the science community to claim to know what the key research needs are for the full range of stakeholders. A few members of the Transition Team recognized that an engagement committee was needed to make sure stakeholders are involved from the design phase of research to production and dissemination.

Does this committee have a big role to play in ensuring that Future Earth is more than the sum of its parts?

Bob – Yes. This committee is as vital to the success of Future Earth as the Science Committee. The key will be how the two committees work together to develop a research program that is world class and meets the needs of the broad range of stakeholders. Another key role will be to oversee the development of the engagement and communications strategy for Future Earth.

Many of the interim committee members have been active in research at some point in their careers, so they understand the challenges of doing world class research. This makes them “bilingual” in the sense that they can speak both the languages of science and society. We have a great opportunity here to rethink that boundary between science and society.

Bob, you are a scientist with considerable experience in science/policy engagement. You also played a key role in the Transition Team which designed the vision for Future Earth. Could you tell us how your background and experience makes you a good fit for this role over, say someone who comes from a non-scientific background.

Bob – I’ve worked as a research manager in the US government (NASA and the White House), the UK Government (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and the World Bank. I have chaired national and international assessments and advised governments, the private sector and NGOs on the relevance of knowledge on issues such as climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, biodiversity and ecosystem services, and agriculture. I have had extensive interactions with the media. For this committee, as a current vice-chair of the IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), I represent one of the most important end users of knowledge which is the science/policy interface.

Who will be on this committee and why? It looks like quite a small group.

Bob – The interim committee is small, currently with seven members. It doesn’t have the full balance we’d want in the permanent committee, but the members already bring together an impressive and broad range of sectors and expertise. We expect the permanent committee to have 16 members, with two co-chairs, making a total of 18.

Science has become increasingly mindful of the need to involve non-scientists in the conduct of science. Most of the international assessment processes, e.g., the depletion of Stratospheric Ozone, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) and International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) involved user groups, not just the scientific community in their preparation and peer-review. So this is a logical step for the international research programmes to embrace the end-users through the Engagement Committee.

Will these people have a chance to serve on the permanent Engagement Committee?

Bob – My personal view is that any interim member should be able to apply to be a full member. It’s important to have continuity.

The Alliance, which acts as the highest governance body of Future Earth until the nomination of a Governing Council, will agree on a process for the call for nominations for the permanent committee. This should be announced later this year.

How do you see the Interim Engagement Committee working together with the Science Committee? This is a new body, and there is no established mechanism for the two to collaborate closely.

Bob – I foresee no difficulties. The key will be mutual trust and respect, and no hidden agendas. This will require face to face meetings and teleconferences. Given that most of the members of the engagement committee have been active scientists there should be no “language” barrier between the two committees.

When will the Interim Engagement Committee have its first meeting?

Bob – I would like to have the first face to face meeting early in 2014.  Our first teleconference will be on October 29th, prior to a joint teleconference with the Future Science Committee in early November.

What will the first order of business be? Could you outline your top priorities?

Bob – The first order of business is to advise the Alliance and secretariat on the terms of reference, i.e., the responsibilities and roles of the permanent committee. We will need to work hard on the criteria and the selection process. We will need to be sensitive to gender, geographical and sectoral balance. We need to make clear that people are representing their sectors and not their organizations.

The second is to reach out to our respective networks and start getting the word out on what Future Earth is. We need to become ambassadors for Future Earth within our communities, and to think strategically about how we can help to make Future Earth become more than the sum of its parts by making some real progress on integrating the user perspective into everything we do.

The third is to work with the science committee to develop a truly inter-disciplinary research program that provides the scientific knowledge needed by the users to transform the world to be more sustainable.

How do you feel about the challenge ahead? We have talked a lot about the process of building this committee, and its work, but I wonder about the culture of getting all these diverse groups to listen to each other, start speaking the same language and building trust and teamwork. Is there a secret recipe for making this happen?

Bob – I am very excited by the opportunities and challenges ahead.  The Future Earth structure provides a unique opportunity for the scientific and user communities to develop a world-class research program that is solution-oriented and addresses some of the most important challenges of our time, including poverty eradication, food, water and human security in the context of human-induced global environmental changes such as climate change, loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystem services. There is no need for a secret recipe to make this work – self-interest on the part of the scientific and user communities will ensure success given both communities will benefit, as will society as a whole, from the collaboration.