December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

In many ways, the Rio+20 Earth Summit held in Brazil last June was a flop. After 3 days of debate, the 50,000 participants – including some 500 scientists and more than 100 heads of state – approved a final document: The Future We Want. Although this document was an international recognition of the need for all countries to commit themselves to achieving sustainable development, it didn’t hold any legal status, and so lacked financial commitment. What’s more, the text merely accounted for the voices of the scientific community. This might be surprising, considering that none of the document titles include the word “science”.

“We simply don’t understand why the document does not have a section on science,” said Steven Wilson, the executive director for the International Council for Science (ICSU). “This sends a very unfortunate message to the global science community and its sponsors.”

The research on strengthening governance and the urgent need for change was effectively ignored during the final draft of the document. Even the concept of “planetary boundaries”, designed to define a “safe operating space for humanity”, was not included in the final statement. This framework was invented by a group of earth system and environmental scientists, who spent 4 years collecting data on the growing human pressure on the Earth’s environment. This could be used as a precious tool to translate science into policy, but some governments were not keen to be seen endorsing the idea that resources are not limitless.

This situation is even more frustrating for the scientific community. Scientists made a significant effort during the summit to make their voices heard and to demonstrate their desire to contribute to policy decisions. To quote summit attendee Yuan Tseh Lee, President of the ICSU, “New knowledge from science must play a critical role in finding solutions through integrated research, holistic systems-oriented thinking, and a stronger commitment on behalf of science to communication, education and engagement.”

The apparent lack of recognition from the stakeholders shows that scientists must urgently take an active role in public debate. The role of science in sustainability is obvious. However, one can ask what science really does: it produces data, observations and predictions that help understand the changes that are threatening our sustainability. But what it can do in the future for sustainability? This theory doesn’t necessarily lead to action.

In order to bridge this gap between theory and action, scientists must step up and take a pro-active role in the debate, even though it implies going beyond scientific ethics. Science is supposed to be neutral and factual: it produces knowledge to explain the world, but it is not supposed to say how this knowledge should be used. However, dealing with sustainable issues inevitably introduces ideology and lobbies.

Scientists should not only be used as an alibi by politicians, but must face societal taboos like overpopulation and overconsumption. Scientists must be heard, not only as members of the scientific community, but also as citizens.