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Future Earth in Transition: An Update from Interim Executive Director Josh Tewksbury

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to upend our professional, communal, and personal lives. In the midst of the crippling loss of life and the trillions in vanished economic value, however, an important window has opened for science-based organizations like Future Earth to support conversations on the ways our world is changing in the Anthropocene era, and to support science-leadership in the urgently needed sustainability transformations ahead.

The message from our diverse networks of world-class researchers is clear: we are nearing a state of planetary emergency, one in which compounding environmental crises threaten the stability and resilience of communities around the globe. 

This is a pivotal moment for our collective future, and – for the first time in a long time – the world is listening. Over the past few decades, the world has made major strides in reducing poverty, hunger, and malnutrition, but with only 10 years left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we are far from the integrated progress we need on climate, health, biodiversity, and so many other critical goals for environmental and human wellness. I believe Future Earth has an important part to play in the long-needed systemic changes to come, and this critical opportunity has arrived alongside a time of evolution and growth for our own organization.

Amy Luers recently stepped down from the Executive Director post after helping form a strong organization ready to support the global, equitable, and evidence-based collaborations we will need to give sustainability science the voice it must have in the years ahead. It is critical that Future Earth’s networks around the world are empowered to co-develop the kind of transdisciplinary research and scholarship that cuts through the political noise and enables decision-makers to take bold action to protect our future. Future Earth’s communities are some of the best-placed in the world to do this work, and are already at the front lines in the research response to COVID-19: from the Global Carbon Projects rapid assessment of emission reductions during the peak of the lockdown in April, to the work from Urban KAN leaders highlighting critical lessons for cities reeling from the shock of the pandemic. This work also stretches well beyond the scientific literature. The Health KAN’s recent COVID-19 policy brief, for example, provides scientifically-based concrete action points to reduce the spread, lessen the impact, and avoid further outbreaks, and is exactly the type of high-impact translational products the world needs from the sustainability science community. 

Making evidence matter is not a one-size fits all problem – legitimacy, credibility, integrity, and salience are fundamental if science is to have a stronger voice in decisions around the world. This is why Future Earth works on multiple fronts – supporting the scientific foundations to form sustainability targets for cities and companies, training and connecting the very best researchers to become engaged science leaders, and using evidence-based solutions journalism to connect the world to new ideas help create a sustainable human age we actually want to live in.  

This is also why we are working harder than ever to engage science at the country level, and to support the growth of national and regional networks of engaged scientists and scholars that work across sectors and alongside their respective leaders to better frame, and ultimately solve, the critical challenges of our time. There are many examples of this work going on around the network already. Future Earth Australia is working with AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange to connect scientists and decision makers around their critical issues, while the Future Earth Regional Office for Southern Africa is leading our engagement with the Belmont Forum to provide funding and opportunities for researchers throughout Africa to join global research teams focused on the designing evidence-based pathways to sustainability. This work, large and small, to build research leadership in the regions that need it most, is what Future Earth was designed for. We were created to give voice to science in the critical decisions of the Anthropocene, and the entire Future Earth Secretariat is committed to that task.  

There is no better place to get a sense of the scope of work that this organization does than the recently published 2019-20 Annual Report. This document celebrates the work over the previous year – from the massive scientific productivity and dedication to building strong, global transdisciplinary research communities that comes from the Global Research Projects and Knowledge-Action Networks to the ongoing efforts with the Belmont Forum to bring the global sustainability community together through the Sustainability, Research, and Innovation Congress

As I step into the role of Interim Executive Director, I’m committed – along with a united Executive Team – to ensuring that Future Earth remains focused on accelerating science that informs and supports social transformations to global sustainability. And if we are to reach our vision of a sustainable and equitable world for all, we must also build stronger information flows across science, governance, commerce, and culture in the months and year ahead. This will take the form of broad strategic partnerships, and transcending the boundaries that have historically separated specific sectors, fields, and policy arenas.

This will also mean ensuring voices that have long been marginalized in both science and social leadership are elevated and heard – the virulence of racial, gender, and geographic oppression must end so that we can grow beyond the zero-sum doctrines of the past. In short, justice and equity must be at the center of our vision for a sustainable future.

Putting the world on track to reach the United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals by 2030 will require unprecedented global collaboration, as well as the very best from science and innovation. There are many bold ideas and budding partnerships already emerging from this time of upheaval, and with all that’s at stake, this is one crisis we simply can’t let go to waste. Let’s get to work.