Some thoughts on Future Earth

Ian Thornton

The UKCDS Deputy Director gives his personal views on how the Future Earth global research platform is developing.

At the beginning of May I attended a meeting entitled “Enhancing collaboration between the development aid and global environmental change communities to achieve development goals in Africa”. This was funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, organised by ICSU and included significant discussion of the role of Future Earth.

The first day focused on identifying opportunities for collaboration between the global environmental change research community and the development research community. The DFID-NERC-ESRC Ecosystems Services for Poverty Alleviationprogramme was highlighted as an example of good practice. The UK seems to be ahead of other countries here, in that collaboration between the Research Councils and DFID is neither new nor unusual – five of the seven Councils now have joint calls with DFID. Other national research funders commented that they do not work closely with their aid delivery infrastructure, despite recognising links between environmental change and poverty and development.

The second day of the conference focused heavily on the role of Future Earth in enhancing collaboration between the two communities [environmental change and development research]. It included a keynote from Mark Stafford Smith, Chair of the Future Earth Science Committee. Future Earth intends to be “A global platform for international research collaboration on global environmental change and sustainable development.” It was launched at Rio+20 in 2012, and “will build on and integrate the existing Global Environmental Change Programmes.” According to Stafford Smith, “These are currently coordinating around 60,000 scientists”. Future Earth will focus on multi-/inter-/trans-disciplinary research, and the “co-design and co-production” of research with multiple non-academic stakeholders.

Future Earth has generated considerable awareness and interest amongst UK stakeholders, and includes a number of leading UK academics on various Committees. Despite this awareness, there is some confusion on what Future Earth will do, its value-add, and whether UK funders should engage more closely. Part of this derives from the thorny issue of how to evidence the added value that derives from coordination. What does it actually achieve?

At UKCDS, I feel Future Earth’s pain. We were set up, in large part, to increase coordination and collaboration between UK funders with interests in international development. Yet, explaining who we are, and what we actually do, is not easy at all (even my immediate family still aren’t certain).

With the buzz Future Earth has generated, and a subtle and evolving mandate, confusion has come too. A substantial contributor to this lack of clarity, to my mind, derives from “Future Earth” and the “the Future Earth Secretariat” being used interchangeably.

  • “Future Earth” seems to be a communications umbrella for the wider body of research programmes and scientists doing research contributing to understanding global environmental change and development. Existing research programmes will be “brought into Future Earth”, and all Belmont Forum activities, for example, are also part of Future Earth.
  • The Secretariat, however, will seek to mobilise and coordinate researchers to be most effectively deployed. Stafford Smith noted “It’s [Future Earth] primarily not a funding platform itself. We just hope to direct more of it.” Activities will include seeking to influence funders’ priority setting, coordinating researchers’ engagement with funders, funding a limited amount of boundary-pushing multi-/inter-/trans-disciplinary research, and producing conferences and policy briefs.

Future Earth’s “Initial Design Executive Summary” outlines their conceptual framework, initial research themes, and a number of potential spaces in which Future earth could play a role, including ‘capacity building’, ‘young scientists’, ‘data’, ‘education’, ‘communications’ and ‘engagement’.

Intuitively, I know that someone taking a birdseye view of the research landscape would be useful. Seeking to persuade funders not to duplicate effort, and to plug gaps, makes sense. The rationale for coordination is therefore clear, but how this will actually make a difference to the state of environmental research in 20 years’ time is really hard to pin down.

I feel Future Earth needs to dramatically pare back or prioritise within its mandate, and to clarify what the Secretariat will actually do. Is it mainly coordination? Or, evidence synthesis and policy influence? Or being a hub for debate? In the UKCDS Secretariat we face the same challenge, but are a few years further down the line. Grappling with this isn’t easy, but it is worth it in the long run.