Meet Future Earth

This week at the EGU General Assembly, we’ve heard how the global environment is changing before our very eyes. As the Earth warms, sea levels rise, and weather patterns shift, the food security, health, and economic prosperity of societies around the world has come under threat. In the Anthropocene, an era dominated by human impact on the natural world, it seems that environmental and development goals are fast becoming one and the same. We have to find solutions that will allow us to live and grow sustainably, a task that falls largely to the hands and minds of the scientific community.

To shepherd Global Environmental Change (GEC) research into a new era of collaboration, communication and innovation needed to meet these challenges, the Future Earth initiative was conceived at the Rio+20 UN Summit on Sustainable Development last year. EGU’s GeoLog sat down with Anne-Sophie Stevance of the International Council for Science and Owen Gaffney, the Director of Communications for the International Geosphere-Biosphere Project, two of the driving forces behind this new project. Here, they explain what Future Earth means for geoscientists.

Future Earth hosted a Townhall Meeting at the EGU Assembly on Tuesday night to introduce their initiative and solicit feedback from the scientific community. Credit: Sue Voice.

First of all, what is Future Earth?

AS: Future Earth is a new international research program focused on producing the knowledge we need to address global environmental changes and the transition towards sustainability. The idea is to unite people who are not used to working together, building a community around Future Earth with stakeholders from academia but also other from sectors like policy and business. We are still very much in the early stages of development and we are eager to work with scientists on defining our research agenda and structure.

What sets Future Earth apart from previous Global Change initiatives?

OG: For the past 20-30 years, Global Environmental Change (GEC) research has focused on understanding human impacts on the planet and how the planet works. For Future Earth, that research agenda is changing to one centered on global sustainability. Also, the world has become far more interconnected in recent decades. Future Earth now has dual roles: to continue coordinating research but also to promote international collaboration and outreach.

How will Future Earth actually work from an operational point of view?

AS: Our goal is to have scientists come together with common research interests and populate the research framework from the bottom up. We don’t want to impose things from the top. Next week, for example, we will host a networking conference for young scientists to discuss food futures. It’s done within the framework of Future Earth and will be all about discussing the research agenda, identifying research themes and priorities, and developing collaborations.

You gave the example of food futures, but what are the other topics that fall under the purview of Future Earth?

OG: The starting point is our three broad research themes: dynamic planet, global development, and transformations toward sustainability. Within these, we’ve already had a call for proposals in two research action groups on freshwater and coastal vulnerability, and we are working on food security and infrastructure. But we want to be very open and create a platform that any scientist feels they can approach.

Owen, your expertise is in communication. Will communication be a big part of Future Earth?

OG: The old model of communication was to make more knowledge accessible to people. I think we need a new model that starts with this idea of co-design. This involves engaging the stakeholders from the beginning so that the users of this knowledge have a larger vested interest in the research and feel that it is addressing their needs.

AS: We highlight co-design as a big opportunity that can bring a lot of value to Future Earth but we also identify it as a challenge. We need to define research questions that appeal to policy and business and that requires building a common language.

Is that where data visualisation comes in? You spent a big part of the Townhall Meeting on Tuesday night talking about this.

OG: Data visualisation is rapidly evolving, and it is such a powerful way of communicating science. It can change how you think about the world by displaying scientific evidence in an understandable way and impressing issues of scale. One of the added values of Future Earth is that we can create partnerships with organisations like Google or Mozilla or Microsoft who are investing heavily in data visualisation. We also plan to offer summer schools on data visualisation and communication for young scientists. Bringing up a community who’s thinking like that is very important, and we need to given them the skills to interact with the public, the media, and policymakers in new ways.

You expressed interest in engaging funding agencies in the goals of Future Earth. Can you explain how that might work?

AS: We are already working with the Belmont Forum, a coalition of groups that fund environmental research, as well as NSF, NERC, national funding agencies and others. They have been involved from the start in setting up Future Earth and establishing the research agenda. Now, they can help further the goals of Future Earth by setting common criteria for funding – for example, that we want to see natural and social sciences together, we want to see elements of co-design and outreach to stakeholders. That incentivises the core elements of Future Earth.

OG: In a similar way, the International Polar Year (IPY) was an extremely positive model of how international endorsement can help with funding. It built a very large community very quickly and that community held together for a long time after the IPY was over. We can adapt some of their ideas for endorsing projects, which can then be taken to funding agencies with a stamp saying “these have been endorsed by Future Earth, will you fund it?”.

At the end of this 10-year initiative, what is an example of an outcome of Future Earth that you would consider a success?

AS: For me, it would be a young scientist trained in holistic, trans-disciplinary research and working on developing pathways to sustainability or researching the link between GEC and how we can transition to sustainability.

OG: The new UN sustainable development goals are going to start in 2015 and run to 2030, but it will be important for the research community to play a role in measuring, monitoring and evaluation the targets underneath the goals. To me, that would be a significant policy outcome from the Future Earth initiative.

You can learn more and get involved at

Here is a powerful data visualisation by Owen Gaffney to inspire you more!

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By Julia Rosen, Freelance science writer and PhD student in Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University

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