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It's time to broaden the debate

Arthur Lyon Dahl and Sylvia Karlsson
17 June 2002
Source: SciDev.Net

Ten years after the Earth Summit in Rio, it is time for the scientific community collectively, for each individual scientist, and for every scientific non-governmental organisation, to re-evaluate the contribution of science to the three pillars of sustainable development: promoting economic development, promoting social development, and protecting the natural environment.

With respect to the environmental pillar, for example, science has made great progress in discovering, understanding and predicting various types of environmental degradation. Such scientific results are increasingly gaining the attention of policy makers - the link between natural (particularly environmental) science and sustainable development is the most obvious example - even if concrete and effective action does not always follow.

Less attention has been given to the role of scientific knowledge in its broader sense, i.e. including both the natural and social sciences, in understanding the social and economic pillars of sustainable development, their components and interrelationships, and the policy options for sustainability.

One challenge, therefore, is to explore how science can rise above the disciplinary boundaries imposed by academic and professional traditions to address sustainable development in a more integrated way. The need for this can be seen partly in efforts to understand the workings of, and human impacts on, the Earth System at a global scale. But it can be seen even more clearly in local efforts around the world to apply scientific knowledge to sustainable development policies.

The task we face is to explore how can we support further integration of these efforts, both from above and from below. Furthermore, how do we educate the next generation of scientists to welcome such integration?

The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) provides an opportunity for the scientific community to explore through the so-called 'Type 2' initiatives - new kinds of partnerships that could be of mutual benefit to both science and sustainable development.

In a world where 'participation' is the current jargon, and information technologies make such participation a practical possibility, science needs to re-examine its traditional top-down decision-making processes, and to explore the implications for its internal organisation of a rapidly globalising world, in which the institutions and organisations that make up civil society are playing an increasingly important role.

There are several recent examples of ambitious dialogues between a range of stakeholder groups at both global and national levels in which scientists have taken part. There have also been many admirable efforts by both individual scientists and research teams to interact with the local community in which they work.

But these examples are still fragmentary. Is it possible to encourage a discussion within the wider scientific community that would do more than call for stakeholder engagement? Could we use input from stakeholders to determine relevant types of research, and evaluate the approaches to achieving this that have already been tried out in various places?

A further link between science and sustainable development that should be discussed in Johannesburg is the way in which a scientific framework can support individuals and communities in their struggle to achieve sustainable, just, and peaceful societies. We need to ask how we can bring science more directly to bear on issues of poverty and sustainable development. Thought also needs to be given to establishing scientific institutions able to achieve this in all countries - even if the models or forms chosen by developing countries are different from those that wealthy countries can afford.

We also need to go beyond the assumption that only professional scientists can do science. Learning to think in terms of process, to weigh evidence and draw conclusions, each part of the scientific approach to problems, can also be made directly accessible to the poor.

Even if these lack the vocabulary and scientific heritage of Western science, they possess acute powers of observation. The development of simple environmental monitoring protocols, for example, that can be used by local people to manage their own resources, demonstrate how science can be empowering in a way that economic aid often fails to be.

It will be seen from these examples that there is no lack of topics for scientists to discuss at the WSSD, and in particular at the planned Science Forum. But these need to be topics that create openings towards the many other actors in government and civil society that will be present, not remain restricted to scientists.

Dialogues with other major groups on the relevance of science to all aspects of sustainable development is one possibility. An exploration of interests held in common with religious or faith-based groups in achieving sustainable development is another, as, for example, recent symposia organised by the Orthodox Church on the environmental problems of the Mediterranean, Black Sea and Danube have demonstrated. And dialogues could also be held in Johannesburg with the educational community and the private sector.

Indeed given the wide range of topics that need to be addressed about the relationship between science and sustainable development, perhaps the first subjects to be tackled are what can be done to enable this discussion to continue after Johannesburg, and what mechanisms are needed to implement the strategies for changing science that will emerge from these discussions.

SciDev.Net 2002

Arthur Lyon Dahl is director of the United Nations Environment Programme's Coral Reef Unit, and president of the International Environment Forum. Sylvia Karlsson is International Science Project Coordinator, International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), and general secretary of the forum. They have prepared the comments in their personal capacity.