Future Earth is a major 10-year international research programme that aims to provide the critical knowledge needed to address challenges of global environmental change, and to accelerate transformations to a sustainable world. Launched in June 2012, at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), it also brings together several existing global initiatives (the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, the International Human Dimensions Programme, Diversitas, and the World Climate Research Programme)

Last week the Future Earth Scientific Committee and Engagement Committee met in Argentina. On their last day here they participated in a ‘Science Day’, organized with Conicet, and designed to inform the Argentinean scientific community about Future Earth’s research plans for the next decade, and to hear from natural and social scientists in Argentina working on sustainability issues. STEPS America Latina took part, talking about our existing work on grassroots innovation and on new work we will be doing on open and collaborative approaches to scientific knowledge production.

At the meeting Future Earth Committee members outlined the new global initiative’s Strategic Research Agenda for the next 5 years. This will focus on three themes: (i) understanding how the planet is changing; (ii) deploying integrated, interdisciplinary science to address urgent sustainable development needs; and (iii) transforming development to be more sustainable in the long term.

A key message from the day was that Future Earth is not only advocating a particular set of research priorities, but also a novel way of doing science. As the committee members emphasized (and as set out in Future Earth’s Strategic Research Agenda document) if scientific knowledge is going to effectively contribute to understanding the problems that matter to society, and to developing the sustainable and equitable solutions that are needed, a new paradigm for interdisciplinary and engaged knowledge production will be required. This means full integration among scientific disciplines (including the social sciences and humanities), and engagement with societal partners in co-designing and co-producing knowledge. As Future Earth puts it, co-design and co-production envisages that “…both researchers and stakeholders are involved in framing questions, analysing problems, and making sense of results together. Whilst researchers are responsible for the scientific methodologies, the definition of the research questions and the dissemination of results are done jointly.” The rationale is that societal needs and policy priorities should influence the direction of science for sustainability, helping to ensure that scientific insights, data and tools are produced that are valuable to decision-makers, and society more generally. Furthermore, broader social involvement in the research process can help to ensure that the solutions that society needs can be implemented, helping to link research and action.

This ambitious and exiting agenda poses major challenges for science and scientists everywhere, both as individuals, in the way we choose research topics, define research questions, and conduct our work, and – perhaps in particular – for the institutions that support science, in the ways in which universities and funding agencies incentivise and discourage particular ways of working, and training, and influence directions of research.

For example, how, in practice, can we work across disciplinary silos in a meaningful and productive way? It is easy to support interdisciplinary ambitions in principle, but in practice – as anyone who has tried it knows – it can be very difficult to achieve. And how can problems and research questions be defined in collaboration with actors who are probably unfamiliar with the scientific curiosities that, individually, inform our own research agendas and scientific questions, or the technical domains and disciplines in question, and who are likely to define problems in ways that do not fall neatly into disciplinary boundaries? Societal actors are also highly heterogeneous and typically hold very different perspectives and have different interests and values. And of course, it is not only a matter of social heterogeneity but also asymmetries of power and knowledge. Some actors will find it far easier to gain or insist on access to a co-designed and co-produced research process than others. Questions about how science can most productively be opened up, and in what aspects, and to whom remain a matter of debate. So far, it is hugely encouraging that Future Earth, as well as many other scientists, are starting to embrace questions of openness and collaboration.

One of the most interesting features of the Science Day with Future Earth was the opportunity to hear about a wide variety of Argentinean research projects that were both examples of interdisciplinary work, but also relied, in one form or another, on open forms of collaboration with citizens, other stakeholders and policy makers. For for example, Sandra Díaz and her interdisciplinary team at the University of Córdoba, presented a fascinating project that integrated ecological research on the ways in which biodiversity supports different ecosystem services in the Gran Chaco region with social science analysis of the ways in which heterogeneous stakeholders value and rely on those services. Ricardo Villalba and Elma Montaña showed how their work on water and glacier dynamics in the Andes was combined with successful advocacy for a National Glaciers Law. Claudia Natenzon and Carolina Vera discussed their work on the prevention of urban flooding, which drew on the local knowledge of school students about flooding vulnerability, as part of the research design. Finally, Oscar Salomon, from the Instituto Nacional de Medicina Tropical in Misiones, presented work on the complex interactions between ecosystem changes and vector borne diseases in the case of leishmaniasis.

The variety of examples presented at the Science Day, and the common issue of participatory approaches to the ways researchers sought to conduct, and ensure impact of, their research leads us to reflect on the importance of helping to make these kind of research initiatives more visible. Perhaps creating a network of actors practicing and interested in open and participatory research on sustainability could be a starting point? There was some enthusiasm about this idea amongst Argentinean scientists, sounded out informally at the Science Day, and it is something that STEPS America Latina will be taking forward.

By Patrick Van Zwanenberg and Mariano Fressoli