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Mind the Gap

Richard Crompton talks to Joseph Alcamo UNEP’s Chief Scientist

Joseph Alcamo is a man with a mission. As UNEP’s Chief Scientist, he has a dual role. He has to keep track of the constant and growing scientific data on our environment, and ensure that the organization communicates it to the outside world. At the same time, he strives to keep the scientific community up to date with the needs and demands of policy-makers.

It’s a tall order. No wonder, then, that he sees this gap between science and policy as one of the most pressing issues going in to Rio+20.

“It is urgent to bolster engagement of science and policy,” Alcamo says. He cites the fifth edition of UNEP’s flagship publication, Global Environmental Outlook (GEO 5), undergoing its final drafting at the time of our interview, in preparation for its launch at Rio+20. The weighty tome is an attempt to consolidate in one place the current understanding of the state of the world’s environment, with practical, concrete suggestions for improvement.

“With GEO 5 we’ve realised that the international community has set many different goals for the global environment,” says Alcamo, “but it has not done a good job of reaching them. Of ninety goals set out at or since Rio [The Earth Summit in 1992], just forty have shown progress and of those, only four have shown significant progress. So the international community have not been complying with their own goals.

“The main reason for that? There are lots of reasons, but one likely one is that science has not been informing policy the way it should be.”

This ‘gap’ takes many forms. Alcamo highlights a few: “A lack of communication between the communities. The inaccessibility of scientific results, especially in the developing world. And there are not enough forums where scientists can come together with policymakers.”

So how to close this gap? Working together with colleagues at UNEP, and in consultation with both the scientific and policy-making community, Alcamo has identified three broad areas where improvement could be easily achieved, and should yield dramatic results.

“Firstly, we need to shorten the distance between science and policy,” he urges. “The scientific community should have a quicker response time in assessing the needs of policy-makers. One example would be Climate Synthesis Reports. When the data are there, it allows policy-makers to address key negotiating issues such as the emissions gap: where we need to be in 2020 to meet our targets [a global increase of no more than 2 degrees Celsius] versus where we are according to the pledges of countries.”

“Secondly, global change research is being carried out by big organizations which have wide degrees of overlap — but often no meeting place between science and policy. One big idea we’re looking at is to change the architecture of global change research. Along these lines UNEP is partnering with ICSU [International Council for Science], UNESCO [UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] and others in the “Future Earth Initiative”. Through ‘Future Earth’ we’re trying to bring the scientists working on issues of sustainability much closer to the users and stakeholders of this science. And then, a third area for action is to encourage scientists to listen more closely to policymakers in setting the agenda — so that research priorities are more strongly influenced by the urgent needs of society for information.”

With his office situated in UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, Joseph Alcamo is acutely aware that the communities which suffer most from the information gap are those in the developing world.

“It’s a sad fact that the most vulnerable parts of the world have the least developed scientific communities,” he says. “We need to strengthen the scientific community in developing countries — and quickly. When studies are conducted on drought in Africa, for example, the expertise is often provided from outside the continent. Africa has fifteen per cent of the world population but just 1.5 per cent of its scientists. We’re losing the unique African perspective — the indigenous knowledge — on solutions.”

So what is the solution? Joseph Alcamo and UNEP have presented a wide range of ideas in the run-up to Rio+20. Among them is the idea of setting voluntary national targets for embedding sustainability studies in the structures of the scientific community and in education systems — from secondary level right through to universities. UNEP is also keen to support the creation of regional centres of excellence in the subject. Impressive results have come from training research leaders, so that will play a part.

Response from the scientific and educational communities has so far been enthusiastic. But Joseph Alcamo insists that the policy-makers also have to be fully on board.

“Without the political commitment we won’t see the necessary investment in sustainability-related science funding,” he says. “It’s a good investment for governments in the long term. Sustainability means food security, reliable energy, and safe communities.”

So at Rio+20 in June, Alcamo and his UNEP colleagues will be looking for a major boost in the partnership between science and society for sustainability. “Bridging the sciencepolicy gap is going to take more than good intentions,” he states. “We need to use science better and scientists need to know more about policy needs. Only then can we close the gap — for good.”

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