Jan 18, 2017
Environmental research – the last 10 years and the next
Congratulations to environmentalresearchweb’s sister product Environmental Research Letters (ERL), which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. The open-access journal’s 10th Anniversary Collection features, as well as milestone articles from the last 10 years, four editorials from high-profile researchers, including journal editor-in-chief Dan Kammen of the University of California, Berkeley, US.
Kammen believes that the next decade will be critical for environmental issues, from the very local to the global scale. "Even with all the progress in becoming more interdisciplinary, we'll have to accelerate and broaden this further to address the many challenges we face," he writes in ERL. "The climate pathways that were the focus of COP21 and the Paris Accords are key. Next will come efforts in numerous areas; accounting and verification, the role and value of biodiversity, cultural and market issues in environmental sustainability, and the under-researched elements of resilience, adaptation, equity, injustice, gender and behaviour, to name just a few."
New approaches, such as big data, behavioural economics, complexity theory and pollution markets, as well as efforts to understand local change in a global context from many different disciplines, must now become the hallmark of environmental research, Kammen believes.
Looking back rather than forward, Kammen is proud of ERL’s achievements. "Our publication of the now ubiquitously cited '97 percent of research acknowledges the reality of anthropogenic climate change' was tweeted by the US President Barack Obama's account, and has been downloaded 540,000 times in three and a half years," he writes. "We published the first peer-reviewed scientific paper on the health and cost impacts of the Volkswagen emissions fraud, as well as other work with direct policy implications, such as a key article highlighting premature deaths arising from biomass burning and major haze events in South East Asia."
But do climate surprises lurk in store? Whether it’s the imperfect nature of climate simulations, the absence from models of factors such as methane release from thawing permafrost or sea-level rise due to ice-sheet melt, the tendency of models to underestimate climate sensitivity (as we’ve seen from the paleoclimate record) or for scientific assessments to "err on the side of least drama", or the possibility of a "perfect storm" of multiple extreme events or the world passing a tipping point, there is plenty of potential for surprises, explain Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University, US, and Robert Kopp from Rutgers University, US, in their editorial for the ERL 10th Anniversary Collection.
"The further and the faster the Earth's climate system is pushed, the greater the risk of surprise."
Katharine Hayhoe and Robert Kopp
"Over 150 years of scientific research—including the last 10 years of publications in Environmental Research Letters—have established that human activities are primarily responsible for both the changes we are seeing today as well as for the surprises that tomorrow may hold," write Hayhoe and Kopp. "Inhabitants of Arctic villages and low-lying coastal areas will soon become the world's first climate refugees; for many of them, it is too late to preserve their homelands. For many more of us, the time to act is now—because the further and the faster the Earth's climate system is pushed, the greater the risk of surprise."
But how can scientists ensure that we do act to reduce this risk? As Susan Owens of the University of Cambridge, UK, explains, the environment has become one of the most visible arenas in which science interacts with politics and policy-making.
"We have expected scientists to be dispassionate, or at least to draw lines between evidence and advocacy; and scientists themselves have often seemed confident that they can make this distinction," she writes. "To take one of many possible examples, the architects of the 'planetary boundaries' framework see it as a task for science to identify critical Earth-system processes and assess the risks that they might be destabilized; but they argue for normative judgement in setting the boundaries to delineate a 'safe operating space for humanity'. The implication is that science comes first, and politics follow. In practice, however, such tidy separation remains elusive."
According to Owens, there is a tangible frustration among scientists that "obvious steps" to protect the environment aren’t taken or that political actors make critical choices in spite of scientific evidence and advice. "Not surprisingly, relations among scientists, decision-makers and the wider public have sometimes become fraught, and the expectations vested in environmental science—as least as a basis for policy—have often proved difficult to meet," she writes, before detailing the reasons for the shortfall.
"Sometimes, in the funding game, the politically savvy triumphs over the highest quality science."
A failure for scientific findings to have an immediate impact tends to be seen as a problem to be resolved by better communication and more energetic commitment to "evidence-based policy", Owens continues. "But the instinct to shout louder and articulate the evidence more clearly (like the parody of an Englishman abroad) overlooks the complexities of science–policy relations and assumes that a failure to follow advice means that the science has not been heard (or understood)." Instead, maybe science and politics should be co-produced – it could be a case of "the ways in which we know and represent the world" being "inseparable from the ways in which we choose to live in it". Skilful advisors could be crucial intermediaries in science–policy relations.
The fewer the merrier?
That’s Owen’s take on incorporating scientific findings into policy. But what about the teams creating those findings in the first place? Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science, US, reckons that small groups of authors have a disproportionately large scientific impact. By analysing the 100 most cited papers in ERL, Caldeira found that their median number of authors was 3.5, whilst 72 of the papers had five or fewer authors.
"Small groups of authors often produce the work with the greatest impact, even in an inter-disciplinary setting," he writes. "This suggests that it may be wise to institute policy changes that discourage inflation of author lists and that encourage the funding of research conducted by single investigators and small groups of researchers."
"The instinct to shout louder and articulate the evidence more clearly (like the parody of an Englishman abroad) overlooks the complexities of science."
Caldeira is concerned that grant money is increasingly going to large multi-institutional multi-disciplinary consortia, at the expense of single-investigator and other small-group investigations. "Such funding models favour scientists who spend a lot of time networking and engaged in institutional political games, and disfavour the scientist who spends a lot of time in the office, lab, or field site engaged in primary research, largely oblivious to current scientific fashion among the funding agencies," he says in his editorial. "Sometimes, in the funding game, the politically savvy triumphs over the highest quality science."
Caldeira suggests two key reforms – giving the option for author teams to attribute a percentage contribution to all co-authors that must add up to 100% (and varying the H-index accordingly); or copying the IPCC in distinguishing between coordinating lead authors and lead authors.
"In my experience, it is rare that more than three authors do approximately equal amounts of work on a single study," Caldeira writes. "This reform would limit Coordinating Authors to some small number (say, three or five). If the number of authors extended beyond this, they would need to be listed as co-authors who are not in a coordinating role. Coordinating Authors, as now, would need to be able to attest to the veracity of every statement in a published work, but co-authors would need attest to the veracity of only the part of the full work to which they directly contributed."
Whatever the climate, policy or funding future holds, ERL will be there for scientists. Head here to see the journal’s 10th Anniversary Collection in full – everything is free to read.
About the author
Liz Kalaugher is editor of environmentalresearchweb.