The word ‘science’ vanishes from a crucial place

June 20, 2012

Aisling Irwin

Aisling Irwin
Consultant news editor, SciDev.Net

The Scientific and Technological Major Group, whose Rio+20 campaign we have charted, has suffered a small but possibly potent loss in the agreed final draft of the outcome document (due to be signed off by heads of state by Friday).

Science: everywhere but in the outcome document
Flickr/NASA desert rats

It’s only one word – but the word is ‘science’ and it has been dropped from the title of the section detailing how science, technology and innovation can be part of the means of implementation of what is agreed – in other words, a key part of the document.

The title of this section has, over the course of the negotiations, had many permutations, containing words such as Science, Technology, Technology Transfer and Innovation. ‘

It has also had a lot of bracketed text trailing behind it, indicating the proposals by various nations on how it should be altered or their refusals to accept the current text.

In particular the hostility of the United States and other developed countries to mentions of the transfer of technology had helped to make the title contentious.

So, when Brazil took over as host of the negotiations a few days ago and produced a new draft, it decided to remove every contested element from the title. The only word that remained was: Technology.

“The lack of [the word Science] sends a very unfortunate message to the global science community and its sponsors,” says Steven Wilson, executive director of the International Council for Science (ICSU)

But can a single word make such a difference?

“As budgets are cut you are never sure,” says Gisbert Glaser senior advisor at ICSU who has been following the fate of S,T&I at each step of the negotiations. “Something like this could cut budgets going into science because the donors [guided by the philosophy of the document] don’t want to cut funding for technology issues”.

This blog post is part of our coverage of Rio+20: United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. To read news and analysis on Science at Rio+20 please visit our website.

‘We told you so,’ and other final messages from the Science Forum

June 17, 2012

Aisling Irwin

Aisling Irwin
Consultant news editor, SciDev.Net

There is a scientist’s version of the phrase “I told you so”, I discovered at the closing plenary of the meeting.

The observed changes are already consistent with predicted trends

It sounds like this: “The observed changes are already consistent with predicted trends”.

The scientific ‘I told you so’ was the first theme that Steven Wilson, executive director of the International Council for Science, said had emerged during the week-long sessions of the Forum for ST&I and Sustainable Development.

After a stormy session on the Green Economy (which we’ll write about here on Monday), he took the floor to sum up the week. Firstly, he said that plenty of evidence had been presented that planetary damage —  and consequent human harm – is already happening. Just like scientists said it would.

The second message emerging from the meeting, he said, was that there is a need for sustained observation — not just one-off bits of science.

For example, sustained observation by the array of buoys that stretches across the Atlantic, measuring the Gulf Stream, has discovered, over time,  a surprising variability in flow.

“So, past isolated measurements could well be misleading,” he said.

The third theme of many talks was the “untapped potential of current knowledge”.

He highlighted a survey by Lisa Dilling of the University of Colorado, US, that found that the biggest obstacle cited by people trying to implement climate adaptation was poor access to information. Plenty could be achieved by better application of what is already known.

The final two themes were, in fact, the mantras of the week: the need for integrated science and the need for whole systems solutions.

A fine example of the latter, Wilson said, is the move to consider air pollution and climate change together – because some pollutants have the potential to warm the atmosphere and others to cool it.

ICSU will soon publish the outcome statements of this meeting, but it is unlikely that anything newly concluded this week would find its way, by any official means, into next week’s Rio+20 conference – at this stage the official channel for S&T input is just two minutes wide.

The benefits are more likely to accrue from the organisers having taken advantage of the greater magnet of Rio+20 and drawn a multinational and multidisciplinary audience. There were 5-600 delegates from over 70 countries, according to Wilson.

Before the meeting, Gisbert Glaser, senior science advisor at the International Council for Science, which organised the meeting, said the goal was to help drive forward the post-Rio+20 implementation.

Such an impact will be hard to measure. But, reviewing the 500+ events scheduled for the Rio+20 period, it is evident that, without this meeting, science would have been a much softer voice in the melee.

This blog post is part of our Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development blog which takes place 11-15 June 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

Brazilian scientists’ hopes and fears about Rio+20

June 16, 2012

Aisling Irwin

Aisling Irwin
Consultant news editor, SciDev.Net

Wearied by the Rio+20 negativity (or realism, depending on your view) that permeates many of the communities we’re reporting on, I thought I would ask figures from Brazilian science what they felt about the summit. After all Brazil is a feisty, confident nation with a mature body of science under its belt.

My (stastically dubious) conclusion is that two thirds of Brazilian scientists are optimistic about what Rio+20 might achieve. Here’s what they said:

Jacob Palis, president of the Brazilian Academy of Science

Jacob Palis: optimistic about Rio+20 (PUC-Rio+20 Cynthia Salles)

Optimism is somewhat a characteristic of our people. The main reason for optimism is the progress we have been making in science and technology in this country. Also, socially, there has been substantial progress in the alleviation of poverty.

Also, there is the fact that the scientific community is clearly united in its goals

And the dialogue with politicians is there – it’s not always successful, but that is democracy.

Fábio Feldmann, former Federal Deputy & State Secretary of Environment of the State of São Paulo

Fábio Feldmann: Not so optimistic about Rio+20
PUC-Rio+20/Cynthia Salles

I’m not so optimistic because, up to now, there is a lack of leadership – a terrible lack of leadership.

Some moments I feel we are just facing the same discussions we had in Stockholm [UN Conference on the Human Environment] 40 years ago, for example the polarisation between North and South.

It’s a discussion that is not able to take into consideration that we must face the limits of the planet.

Glaucius Oliva, president of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development:

I am an optimist that we will have an agreement on strong goals that may shape national and international policies for the coming years in defining proposals and government investments.

One important aspect is to have an international fund to promote sustainable development worldwide — which of course would include funding for joint research projects between nations that will contribute to finding solutions for problems.

This blog post is part of our Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development blog which takes place 11-15 June 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

Whoops! Policy-makers just picked up my science

June 16, 2012

Aisling Irwin

Aisling Irwin
Consultant news editor, SciDev.Net

There has been regular, gloomy and frustrated introspection by scientists at this meeting about how to get policy-makers to listen to them more.

It was mind candy, therefore, to hear one scientist’s account of how he was just going about his normal business when the policy world seized his work.

Is it something about the diagram?

Before he knew it, his group’s ideas had been adopted by the European Union and promoted for the Rio+20 agenda. Soon policy-makers had even entered the concept into the draft of the Rio+20 outcome document — although it has subsequently been dropped.

The scientist was Johan Rockström, of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, leader of the international team that drew up the idea of ‘planetary boundaries’, which first had their public airing in a feature in Nature magazine in 2009.

“The fact that it was carried over into the policy arena was a positive surprise,” Rockström told the Forum on ST&I in Sustainable Development yesterday.

His group had been experimenting with integrated science and how it could find a way to advance sustainability, he said.

“It was never ready to be transmitted into policy.”

It will be interesting to follow this story. Some policy-makers, he pointed out, dislike the idea for fear it sets limits on development.

Perhaps the prematurity of its entrance into policy-makers’ minds also spells an early departure.

Nevertheless the case might provide insights for those trying to attract policy-makers to their scientific ideas.


This blog post is part of our Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development blog which takes place 11-15 June 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

Lavish praise and a few reservations at the launch of Future Earth

June 15, 2012

Mićo Tatalović

Mićo Tatalović
Deputy news editor, SciDev.Net

A much-talked about global research alliance for global sustainability, Future Earth, was officially launched, and its tentative research themes unveiled, at the science forum yesterday.

The vast initiative aims to integrate various sciences find solutions for sustainable development. Its ‘integrated research themes’ were revealed — to  mixed reception — at the forum.

The eight themes were in the fields of: state of the planet; resources for development and wellbeing; critical regions (eg cities, poles); disasters; living with the sea; lower carbon societies; global responses to the environment and transformative pathways towards a sustainable future.

The next steps include the research framework going online for open consultations in the next few weeks; four regional workshops to be held by the end of the year; and the scientific committee to be set up in early 2013.

“An enormously significant compilation of organisations has come together, which, I think, shows the commitment of the science community,” said Felix Dodd, executive director of Stakeholders Forum, who chaired the meeting.

And Joseph Alcamo, Chief Scientist, United Nations Environment Programme was effusive: he said this was “one of the most unique partnerships the Earth has seen” and said it had “tremendous potential” to provide us with the science needed to achieve sustainable development.

But despite praise and flagship status of Future Earth, there were many questions raised about it at the debate following the presentation, and also on the sidelines .

Kathleen Cass, executive director of the Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA), said there were hardly any mentions of ‘data’ and it was not clear how or where the data expected to be produced by the research initiative will be stored and handled.

John Baglin, emeritus researcher at the IBM Almaden Research Center, United States, who earlier in the week proposed a research roadmap on behalf of the International Union of Materials Research Societies said the presentation omitted two key things: who is Future Earth’s audience and what are their deliverables.

Similar concerns about how this venture will measure its success were raised (and not answered) at a meeting earlier in the year.

This blog post is part of our Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development blog which takes place 11-15 June 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

Women talk about the demands of a career in science

June 14, 2012

Mićo Tatalović

Mićo Tatalović
Deputy news editor, SciDev.Net

Rio+20 is unlikely to yield commitments on improving the status of women in science, despite there being a ‘Major Group’ on women and a separate one on science taking part in the negotiations, the forum heard yesterday evening at a side event on women in science.

There hasn’t much recognition of the issue in the UN negotiations so far, but women scientists could play a crucial role in sustainable development.

Sonia Bahri, from UNESCO said that science combined with gender equality could help achieve Millennium Development Goals.

“If sustainable development needs science – and we can all agree on that – science needs women – maybe this has not been highlighted enough these three days,” Bahri said.

Lilliam Diaz, a mathematician from the Cuban Academy of Sciences, who has also worked with the Cuban science ministry and Women in Science for the Developing World, said that science is not complete if women do not participate, because they approach issues differently and complement [male] scientists.

She said that although 66% of scientists in Cuba are women they still have to face subtle discrimination. “It’s hard for women in developing world doing science.”

But she added that there are efforts in Inter-American Network of Academies of Science to introduce gender issues in all of the academy’s programmes.

In Brazil, although there were equal proportions of men and women in science, women were still absent from top positions in science institutions, and are still underrepresented in physics, mathematics and engineering.

“The situation now is not as bad as in the 70s and hopefully it will improve as it did in the United Sates where there are many women chairs of departments,” said Belita Koiller Brazil, professor of physics at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian Academy of Science.

Indra Nath, an Indian pathologist and a 2002 Loreal Women in Science winner said it may have been easier for her to succeed in science as “Medicine all over the world is recognized as more sexy than straight science”.

It is more difficult for women to succeed in pure sciences, she said.

A big challenge is the drop off after attaining science degrees – period of 3-5 years when women start families – but the Indian government now has special grants and fellowships to help those women stay in science, she said.

Ameena Fakim, a scientist from Mauritus, who started a green business based on indigenous knowledge said that free education in her country boosted numbers of women graduates so they outnumber male students, but the same drop-off happens after degree level.

“We cannot keep on marginalized 50% of world’s population if we are to mainstream sciences.”

So more needs to be done to ensure women can have families and practice science. “Behind every successful man there’s a woman – behind every successful woman there’s a family,” Fakim said.

Alice Abreu, ICSU’s Latin America director highlighted that the person’s gender still plays a disproportionate role in their success in science. Challenges ahead include employing women in decision-making roles in science; reconciling career and family life; and understanding the link between gender and scientific excellence.

And there is a need for more gender equity in S&T education; provision of enabling measures for equality; and making the decision-making more gender-aware, among other things.

This blog post is part of our Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development blog which takes place 11-15 June 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

Weathering uncertainty: learn from indigenous communities

June 14, 2012

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

Sha Zukang: Everyone is equally unhappy.. which means they are equally happy
Flickr/UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferra

Hello, and I pitch in to wrap up our blog.

Sustainable Development is a multi-dimensional, complex topic that is, and should be, viewed through a variety of lenses, but it is often impossible to have all the lenses with us, even if we want to.

During Rio+20, SciDev.Net looked at it through the science lens, offering a rich fare of issues from energy for all, to oceans, to agriculture to technology transfer and the role of science in sustainable development.

That coverage was peppered with a view of the scenes outside the conference venue, including exhibitions and the bustling people’s summit.

And there was the African perspective on sustainable development.

The conference secretary general, Sha Zukang, says the summit achieved some notables: including a “substantive pathbreaking outcome”; a registry of voluntary commitments from corporates, international agencies and others for sustainable development; and the ‘zero hunger challenge’ initiative.

“We would have been happier if there had been more science in the document. But the outcome document is something we can build on,” Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change, remarked to me.

Civil society was predictably furious over what Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo described as a “missed historical opportunity” to see a stronger agenda through.

Many of us living in developing countries, including me, recognise the complexity of sustainable development — the sheer magnitude of poverty in some areas; the inequity within countries that has worsened as economies grow and the never-ending ‘environment versus development’ tension as we struggle to lift millions out of poverty and provide access to clean water, sanitation, energy, education and jobs.

I would like to mention two lasting impressions as I sometimes switched the science lens for other lenses.

I, like countless women, am left aghast that this summit has regressed on women’s reproductive health and rights issues which has implications for access to safe contraception and family planning services. It is Rio minus 20 on that count.

Then I am left uneasy with this corporate juggernaut  — it was there with all its public relations machinery.

Jose Maria Figueres, president of the non-governmental organisation Carbon War Room,  told the media that, while governments let Rio+20 down, corporates took it forward. Time to watch out for who will be in the driving seat from now on.

But then as Sha Zukang philosophically noted, such meetings leave “everyone equally unhappy … equally unhappy means equally happy,” he observed. So be it.

This blog post is part of our Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development blog which takes place 11-15 June 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

Engineering crucial for sustainable development, poverty reduction

June 14, 2012

Mićo Tatalović

Mićo Tatalović
Deputy news editor, SciDev.Net

Engineering organisations from around the world – consisting of some two million engineers in total – have supported the UN secretary general’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative, it was announced today at the forum.

These include institutes and organisations from Chile, India, Malaysia, Maurititus, South Africa and Zimbabwe, as well as the Society of Women Engineers.

“Engineers did more than any other profession to improve the quality of life over the past century,” Gordon W. Day, president of IEEE said. He gave examples of energy, computing, health and transportation technologies.

Engineers are keen to complete “the unfinished business” – providing basic technologies and amenities, such as electricity, to people around the world.

“Access to technology is one of the principle distinguishers between a rich country and a poor one.”

India and Sub-Saharan Africa consume only a third of the world’s average energy consumption – bringing them up will require much more energy creation, presenting a challenge to engineering, he said.

To boost innovation it is fundamental to create skilled high-tech workforce drawing upon talents of citizens – and this requires strong education system.

“Innovation comes form people, not from institutions – companies, governments, universities don’t innovate – people innovate.”

Success examples of countries achieving this are Korea, Singapore, China, India and Brazil.

And there is still a need to attract more women to engineering, he said. “If you want to stimulate innovation you cannot ignore half of the population – you need to attract all the best minds.”

“Without science engineering would have no roots, but without engineering science would bear no fruit. They’re both critical to our future.”

Engineers are creative in the same way as artists are, he said.

“They imagine what could be and then they proceed to create it – it really does create the world that never before existed and it produces the fruits of science.”

Gretchen Kalonji, head of natural sciences at UNESCO said: “Engineering has a vitally important role to play [in sustainable development]… to make sure the products of research are translated into real products, real services, that can improve people’s lives.”

“It’s indispensable to getting things done with respect to these challenges [of sustainable development],” she said. “Poverty eradication without engineers is very difficult to envision.”

And engineering is also a “major job creator”m Kalonji added.

A group of enthusiastic engineering students from Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro, which is hosting the forum, said it was important to go out and change things by engaging with activists and local projects as well as communicating their knowledge with the society. “Let’s go out and do it,” one of them said

This blog post is part of our Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development blog which takes place 11-15 June 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

Indigenous communities emerge as proactive negotiators

June 14, 2012

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

For me, a refreshing change in climate change and sustainable development meetings, compared to the high-brow, purely scientific meetings, is that they bring in local communities’ representatives on the podium to share their insights and wisdom.

And so I enjoyed listening to Roberto Marin,  (Asociación de Capitanes y Autoridades Tradicionales Indigenas del Pira Parana (ACAIPI), Colombia; Jaqueline Dias, (Articulação Pacari) PCARI, Brazil; and  Myrna Cunningham, member, UN permanent forum on indigenous issues ad executive director of CADPI, Nicaragua, albeit I had to make do with an English translation of their speeches in Spanish or Portuguese.

They narrated their struggles to preserve their culture and knowledge even as they assimilate some of the more ‘modern’ concepts of education and health; their efforts to forge inter-cultural universities for indigenous community students and with special courses on traditional knowledge; and their emergence from passive or helpless, marginalized victims of relentless modernization to determined negotiators in international treaties and conventions.

For example, Brazil’s Pacari network brings together 47 traditional pharmacies and community-based organisations to cultivate medicinal plants, preserve traditional ecological knowledge and health traditions, and protect biodiversity in the Cerrado (savannah) biome.

With no comprehensive legislation that recognizes traditional health practices in Brazil, the network mobilized medicinal plant producers and local health practitioners to create self-regulating policies; set standards on the amount of plant used to prepare traditional medicines, safety and sanitary conditions for plant processing; and sustainable harvesting techniques.

And Myrna Cunningham Kain was the first Miskitu woman to become a surgeon, and was the founder and first rector of the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast (URACCAN).

Jennifer Rubin, climate frontlines negotiator at UNESCO, explained how indigenous communities are determinedly making use of state and national dialogues; and UN mechanisms, to express their concerns ad protect their rights. Indigenous people live in or sue resources on some  22 per cent of the world’s land area, which harbours 80 per cent of the global biological diversity.

They made effective interventions in the Convention on Biological Diversity   (CBD), but feel they are yet to make a similar dent in climate change negotiations.  There has been some progress though. – recognition of indigenous knowledge at the the 2010 Cancun adaptation framework principles; and the upcoming fifth IPCC assessment report.

Indigenous people have not been passive. We are negotiating, resisting, adapting, and engaging with policymakers, nationally and internationally,  Rubis said.

This blog post is part of our Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development blog which takes place 11-15 June 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

Why your bulging tummy is a global sustainability agenda

June 13, 2012

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

This morning, I learnt something new about ‘somatic’ and ‘extra somatic energy’, thanks to Tony Capon, head, discipline of public health at the University of Canberra, Australia. And that its about time the fat in our (or at least mine) expanding tummy lines gets included in the global sustainability agenda.

Capon told a morning session on urban health and well being that the focus of the sustainability discourse so far has been on ‘extra somatic energy’, or energy produced outside our bodies. For example, electrical energy in power stations.

But look at the global obesity epidemic around you and there is something that can’t be missed. Capon says that all that food resting snugly as fat in our expanding waistlines, is also unused energy of another kind — ‘somatic energy’ to be more precise. “The global obesity epidemic is a problem with our somatic energy account — too much in, too little out,” Capon said.

“Get somatic energy on the (global sustainability) agenda,” Capon said. This would include diet and physical activity; as well as level of physical activity and how it is affected by urban transport systems.

“What we eat, and its relationship to the wider food system – from farm to fork – is important, he said.

“The global obesity epidemic is a sustainable development issue.”

Getting somatic energy on the sustainability agenda is one of Capon’s key recommendations at the session. Also, start a new narrative aligning concerns about human health with concerns about planetary health; and sending positive message about ‘co-benefits’ for health from action on climate change.

The others are to transcend disciplines to understand urban health and well-being, which also means going “beyond medical sovereignty of knowledge about health”; and finding alternate ways of understanding health, for example, by tapping into indigenous knowledge and human ecology concepts.

This blog post is part of our Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development blog which takes place 11-15 June 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

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