Early-career scientists are vital to shape sustainable science agendas

20 December, 2016

Jennie Dodson

Organisations are beginning to explore how structures and capacity-building efforts can strengthen the role of early-career scientists to shape science culture and research programmes.

Much has recently been highlighted about the challenges for early-career researchers around funding, career-progression, publish-or-perish culture and the requirement for an ever-increasing diversity of skills. These issues are even greater for those who want to pursue interdisciplinary research of relevance to international development. Ian Goldin suggested that multidisciplinary research may be ‘career suicide’ for young academics. In a recent British Academy report many respondents said they would advise against a move into interdisciplinary research, ‘at least until the researcher was well established with a permanent job.’

But if this is the case how are we to develop the innovative, creative research community to tackle the complex sustainable development challenges already upon us? Some organisations are beginning to explore how structures and capacity-building efforts can strengthen the role of early-career scientists to shape science culture and research programmes.

FutureEarth, a ten-year global initiative to advance research to support transformation to a sustainable world, recently hosted a gathering of the early-career researchers network of networks. This recognised that early-career scientists are vital in the development of sustainable science agendas as a globally mobile and technologically literate workforce at the cutting-edge of interdisciplinary and team science approaches. In addition, issues of intergenerational equity make it a moral necessity to involve the generations that will have to develop and implement solutions to the sustainability and development challenges.

Future Earth Early-career Networks workshop

Practical proposals include:

  • Embedding early-career scientists in the decision-making bodies of FutureEarth, such as the science and engagement committee’s
  • Running online scientific dialogues including early-career researcher perspectives
  • Developing science policy fellowships and opportunities within global science assessments such as the International Panel on Climate Change

Swiftly following this, UKCDS co-hosted an with the Network of Early-career Sustainable Scientists & EngineersBritish Council and Royal Society of Chemistry. The workshop brought together scientists from across disciplines and countries, including many on Newton Fund mobility grants.

Guido Schmidt-Traub, Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, challenged attendees with both the potential of research to catalyse change and the level of the transformations needed across health, education, sustainable agriculture and land use, clean energy, cities and for the circular economy. They then participated in a challenging participatory workshop developing skills in how to build co-created research projects at the intersections of the Sustainable Development Goals.

I was struck by the positivity and openness of the attendees to listen, question and explore ideas across boundaries as well as the connections between their research knowledge. From initial disciplinary language barriers, ambitious and creative ideas emerged.

Yet, the inclusion of early-career scientists in shaping the future of science culture has a long way to go. And beyond the moral and scientific reasons highlighted above, the creativity, passion and positivity that I observed is also needed to sustain us on the path to sustainable development.

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