Wednesday, 21 February 2007



AAAS Day 4: Sunday 18 Feb 2007

One of the highlights of the entire conference was an evening plenary lecture by Mohamed Hassan, Executive Director of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (formerly the Third World Academy of Sciences) and a member of the STEPS International Advisory Panel. You can watch a RealPlayer video of Mohamed giving his lecture at
Mohamed’s talk was a wide-ranging examination of “International Cooperation in Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being”, which covered several challenges:
1. Disparities in science, technology and innovations capacity – both North-South and South-South
2. Global sustainability issues
3. Brain drains – again both North-South and South-South
4. International circulation of scientists
5. Access to scientific information

On capacity, Hassan used shares of published articles in peer-reviewed journals to illustrate disparities between countries. He observed that there are growing divisions at three levels, the rich North (including Australia and New Zealand), a middle-income South (including China, India, Brazil, South Africa etc.) that contribute 22% of all publications and the 77 countries who lag behind in S&T and only contribute only 3% of publications. A challenge for international cooperation is how to help reduce these disparities, especially the group of 77.

On opportunities, Hassan outlined new developments in four areas:
1. Cutting-edge technologies (ICTs, biotech, nanotech)
2. Natural resources and biodiversity
3. Renewed commitments to STI in Africa
4. Greater commitment by the G-8 countries and China to support STI investments in developing countries

He went on to describe several examples of international cooperation, from improvements in higher education (through the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa and establishment of networks of the scientific academies) to establishment of centres of excellence (drawing on lessons from the CGIAR) and networks of Third World scientific academies. On this latter point, Hassan observed, “The scientific academies are waking up now and realising they must do something for society and not just act as private clubs.”

In concluding, Hassan noted that many developing countries are waking up to the fact that “investing in science is not a luxury”. He pointed to countries like Nigeria, which is setting up its own National Science Foundation and Rwanda, which expects to increase expenditure on STI to 3% of GDP in the next five years. But these and other countries cannot do it alone. His key message was that “chances have never been brighter” for developing countries to increase their capacities in science and technology, but they can’t do it alone. They will need considerable support from scientific organisations like AAAS and research centres like STEPS to make it happen.

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AAAS Day 4: Sunday 18 Feb 2007

Issues of related to the credibility, salience and legitimacy of knowledge were also explored in a session on “Knowledge Systems for Sustainable Development: Mobilizing Research and Development for Decision-Making.” This was reporting the results of an international project led by Bill Clark and Nancy Dickson at Harvard and Pamela Matson at Stanford and explored the question: “What makes some knowledge systems more effective than others in harnessing science and technology with the goals of sustainable development?”
The session involved some of the same presenters as the earlier one on Global Challenges (including Clark and Matson), but also included Gilberto Gallopin from the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Chile, and Louis Lebel from Chiang Mai University, Thailand.

Presentations included:
· Bill Clark, Linking Knowledge to Action for Sustainability
· Gilberto Gallopin, Knowledge for Sustainable Development: The Challenge of Multiple Epistemologies
· Louis Lebel, Governing Knowledge Systems for Sustainable Development
· Pamela Matson, Research Actors in Knowledge Systems for Sustainable Development: Perspectives from the Inside

This team undertook research to understand “systems networks” of people, organisations and resources involved in mobilising R&D in five cases – water management, short-term climate forecasts, fisheries, agriculture and health. In each case, they viewed “knowledge systems” as consisting of a network of linked actors, organisations and objects that perform a number of knowledge-related functions that link knowledge and “know-how” with actions. Included are the incentives, financial resources, institutional arrangements and human capital that give such systems capacity to do their work, and the intention to focus such work in some arenas rather than others.

Overall, the presenters discussed how generalisable findings about knowledge systems might be, beginning with the premise that usable knowledge is ultimately “contextualised” (i.e., adapted to specific circumstances of place). The question remains, what, if any, generalisations about “what works” in the design of effective knowledge systems can be carried over from place to place or sector to sector? This resonates well with the thinking the STEPS Centre is developing in its Designs theme.
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AAAS Day 4: Sunday 18 Feb 2007

This was another largely US-focused event, which nevertheless raised some intriguing issues about the how the rationales for scientific research on sustainability are defined and who sets the agenda. In the US, two pillars sustain bipartisan political support for science: national security and economic competitiveness. This symposium asked whether these are sufficient and argued that even if they are, we need to be clear about what priorities for science should sustain these goals, given increasing internationalisation of science and of the technological marketplace.
For two decades, the US has ignored these questions and the research investments required to answer them. Now, the federal science establishment has awakened to the need for building the intellectual models and capabilities to address priorities for science and research policy. The US Office of Science and Technology Policy is discussing the matter, and the National Science Foundation and other federal R&D agencies are planning programmes and requesting budget increases for them. The purpose of this session was to consider what criteria should be brought to bear in developing and assessing sustainable science or research policy.

This is an enormous topic, of course, whose parameters range from issues of development of human and infrastructure resources, to questions about scientific integrity and public trust, to issues of climate change and international treaties. Sheila Jasanoff of Harvard University (pictured above) one of three members of the STEPS Advisory Panel to attend this year’s AAAS meeting, gave a presentation on “Research for Global Problems: Public Understanding or Public Trust”. Sheila argued that to generate and maintain public trust, knowledge produced in support of public decisions ordinarily has to meet explicit standards of quality and integrity, often in accordance with legal requirements. Administrative processes designed to ensure the reliability of policy-relevant knowledge include notice and comment, peer review, public hearings, and judicial review. While these procedures exist at the level of the nation state, processes for generating knowledge for global problems tend to be less specified and institutionalised. At the global level, therefore, producing public trust in science has proved to be a problem. Using examples of transnational knowledge production, Sheila addressed issues of credibility and reliability for research on problems of a global scale.
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AAAS Day 4: Sunday 18 Feb 2007

I was attracted to this symposium by its title, as it links two key areas of our STEPS work – the governance theme with the water domain. It didn’t quite live up to my expectations, however, as the focus was mainly on Northern (i.e. US, European and Australian) experiences. Where are all the Third World presenters, I wondered? Something will have to be done to ensure more participation from developing country scientists in next year’s AAAS meeting in Boston, especially given the theme of “Science and Technology from a Global Perspective.”

This session, which was organised by Sara Hughes of the University of California, Santa Barbara, focused on sustainable management, use and conservation of water resources as one of the critical issues of the 21st Century. Presentations were made with Hughes on “Why Collaboration? Exploring Dynamic Water Governance and the Need for Connections”; David Huitema of the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, on “Adaptive Water Governance: Assessing Adaptive Management from a Governance Perspective”, - Joan B. Rose of Michigan State University on “Collaborating for Quality in Science-Based Risk Assessment” and Jennifer McKay of the University of South Australia, on “A Proposed Virtual Water-Trading Council: Building Institutional Frameworks at the International Level To Reduce Poverty.”

The presentations emphasised the need for “collaborative governance”, as collaboration has become widely recognised as an important tool in the effort to achieve lasting and effective governance of commons resources, including water. The discussants noted that important new experiments in collaborative governance of water resources are being conducted in the United States and throughout the world for solving problems and anticipating conflicts. There is considerable enthusiasm about such efforts, but the costs and benefits of such collaboration are often unclear. A variety of opportunities for joint decision making were considered, from vertical to horizontal, institutional to individual. For example, advances in international collaboration surrounding “virtual water” resources may benefit from the successful emergence of water markets and watershed management in Australia; water management institutions in the Netherlands have incorporated community involvement in the water sector to make decisions and plan for the future; and researchers in the United States are working toward inter-organisational, interdisciplinary collaboration based on shared values and expertise to set and meet risk standards in water quality.
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AAAS Day 4: Sunday 18 Feb 2007

Another day, another half-dozen sessions at the AAAS Annual Meeting I would like to attend. Time being of the essence, however, I was forced to split my time between a handful of symposia and topical lectures.
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AAAS Day 3: Saturday 17 Feb 2007

Given the inherent multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary nature of sustainability, AAAS believes it is well positioned to catalyse such discussions among scientists, social scientists and engineers. This is part of a broader effort within AAAS to develop a diverse community of researchers addressing critical questions at the nexus of environment, international development and societal interactions.

To meet these needs, AAAS hosted a roundtable meeting to bring together a community of scholars and practitioners of sustainability active in academia. The session included a review of the results of a global survey of emerging Sustainability Science programmes. The STEPS Centre was one of 49 institutions around the world that responded to the AAAS survey of new university-based Sustainability Science programmes. The survey and roundtable are part of an ongoing effort by AAAS to create a forum for sharing experiences and identify how the University based programmes might develop and interact, not only in the US but globally.

This roundtable, which was convened by Vaughan Turekian, Chief International Officer of AAAS and chaired by the inimitable Bill Clark of Harvard, highlighted how international policy makers as well as local and regional decision makers are confronted with challenges associated with (un)sustainability. The science and engineering communities are undertaking practical, place-based research to provide decision-support for addressing the sustainability challenge. At this time, however, there is little coherence or consistency in the development of this new field of Sustainability Science across institutions and international borders. Universities are helping to lead the way in developing both research programmes and curricula and can further the field by exchanging information and experiences about these programmes. But it is clear that institutions around the world are at different levels of developing Sustainability Science programmes, ranging from some that are well established and funded to others that are just being conceived and established, such as the ESRC-supported STEPS Centre. All of these programmes have faced, or are facing, challenges and barriers to success. The purpose of the roundtable was to share experience on challenges, opportunities and prospects for collaboration to promote the large-scale development of this field.

To kick off proceedings, colleagues from AAAS presented some fascinating insights from their survey:
· Over 25% (14 out of 49) programmes are based in or associated with engineering faculties
· 33% are from international programmes – but only 2 centres (including STEPS) has a focus on international development – a shockingly low figure and one I will return to below
· 4,700 students are enrolled in these programmes, many at post-graduate levels
· 6 out of 49 programmes mention “sustainability science” in their title
· All emphasise nature-society / human-environment interactions
· All describe some aspect of policy-focused research
· Many stress a strong need for community engagement

The programmes put forward 14 challenges, some of which are slightly overlapping, but worth mentioning here:
1. Curriculum design
2. Rewarding faculty (incentives for cross-disciplinary collaboration, etc.)
3. Working across academic units
4. Funding
5. Applied vs. basic research – getting the balance right
6. Attracting students
7. Quality of researchers
8. Institutional structure – to facilitate cross-disciplinary work
9. Creating public-private partnerships
10. Defining “sustainability science”
11. Career tracks – relates back to point 2 and others above
12. Core methods
13. Projects and research
14. Evolution – providing support structure for students and researchers while being flexible as the field evolves

Participants in the roundtable were asked to “vote” for their 4 top challenges to serve as a focus for our discussions. We chose 1, 10, 13 and combined 3 and 8 above.

We kicked of the discussion on whether there was a real need for defining Sustainability Science at this stage. Many argued this should be kept as simple as possible and Pam Matson suggested using the broad definition she used in her talk in the “Grand Challenges” session earlier in the day:
1. Meeting the needs of people today and in future
2. Sustaining the life support systems of the planet

Others emphasised the challenge of moving from “curiosity-driven science” to “mission-driven science” or “use-inspired basic research” (which involved key stakeholders in the research process).

Bill Clark summarised the exchange by observing that Sustainability Science is not a science, but a “set of practices” and emerging framework. There is a commitment to be problem driven – “bringing Science and Technolology to bear on problems out there.”

Near the end of the discussion, I observed that while AAAS should be commend for its efforts to conduct this useful stock-taking of Sustainability Science programmes, it was striking to note that all but one of the respondents were based in the OECD (US, EU, Japan and Australia) and only two mentioned an explicit focus on international development issues. I urged the AAAS to seek out new initiatives in Africa, Asia and Latin America and double the number of programmes in next year’s survey. Moreover, I called on my colleagues to consider ways that their universities and institutes could establish long-term partnerships with like-minding programmes in the South, to help strengthen their capacity and undertake collaborative research that crosses geographic as well as disciplinary boundaries. Just as John Holdren asked each of us as individual scientists to tithe 10% of our professional time to working to increase the benefits of science and technology for the human condition and to decrease the liabilities, I suggested our respective programmes should consider a similar arrangement for supporting our Southern partners to become centres of excellence on Sustainability Science.

Clark wryly commented, “Well, I don’t think I can top that challenge, so I think we’ll bring this session to a close.”
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AAAS Day 3: Saturday 17 Feb 2007

Another interesting topical lecture was given by Elinor Ostrom (pictured left) Co-Director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University and Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at Arizona State University on “Sustainable Socio-Ecological Systems – An Impossibility?” A political economist, Ostrom has challenged common economic assumptions by demonstrating how small communities are capable of developing cooperative, self-governing institutions that prevent the overuse of grazing pastures, irrigation systems and other communal resources. Her field research has focused on the type of monitoring, sanctions and other governing structures needed to ensure the effective and equitable management of common resources.

In her lecture, Ostrom argued that contemporary scientific efforts are not well organised to achieve effective responses to change. We need disciplines that can “put people and ecosystems together,” but this can be difficult to achieve, she noted.

Using the example of critically testing Garrett Hardin’s well-known “Tragedy of the Commons” thesis, Ostrom set out six challenges for analysing and understanding Socio-Ecological Systems (SES):
1. Overcoming the “panacea trap” – getting beyond single best solutions to complex ecological problems
2. Accepting complexity – digging into complex systems that are “partially decomposable” to examine dynamics at different levels
3. Developing a “multidisciplinary, multi-tier framework” – encompassing 4 large variables: the resource system; governing system; resource unit; and the users; and how these influence key interactions and outcomes at different scales or “tiers”
4. Devising “nested theories” – building theories of SES that can be tested empirically within the framework at different tiers
5. Producing comparable longitudinal data for testing these theories – requiring a common taxonomy of core variables for comparing and contrasting interactions and outcomes over space and time
6. Recognising the value of institutional diversity – emphasising that achieving sustainability in SES requires understanding and “embracing institutional diversity” rather than eliminating or dismissing it as “too confusing”.
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AAAS Day 3: Saturday 17 Feb 2007

An important ‘topical lecture’ was given by Anthony Fauci, Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), on ‘HIV/AIDS: 25 Years and Counting.” Fauci noted that despite an increasing US federal research budget and more powerful drugs have led to great progress in combating the HIV epidemic in the United States, the annual rate of new infections has remained steady at 40,000 for more than 10 years.
Addressing this troubling statistic, he urged scientists and politicians to pay more attention to strategies that raise awareness about actions that increase the risk of contracting the virus and encouraging those in high-risk populations to get tested regularly.

“Twenty-five percent of all people infected do not know that they are infected,” Fauci said. “With the vast majority of HIV infection transfers coming from people who do not know that they are HIV positive, we clearly are not getting to the people that we need to be getting to.”

Fauci provided an overview of past and current HIV research, and spoke about the future of medicine and political initiatives in the global fight against HIV. Citing a $2.9 billion dollar National Institutes of Health budget for HIV research in 2006, $190 billion federal cumulative dollars spent on HIV research from 1981 to 2007, and 207,572 HIV-related papers in PubMed Database (a directory of biomedical research), Fauci contended that HIV/AIDS is the most studied pathogen in human history. He also pointed out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved more HIV/AIDS anti-viral medicines that all other anti-virals combined. “HIV/AIDS is the most studied pathogen for good reason – last year it overtook tuberculosis as the leading cause of infectious death in the world,” said Fauci.

Appointed director of NIAID in 1986, Fauci remembers reading the startling news story in 1981 that five gay men has contracted pneumocystis pneumonia, a relatively rare illness with symptoms of coughing, fever, and shortness of breath. Soon after, newspapers around the country began reporting similarly rare illnesses in populations of Haitians, haemophiliacs, people who had received blood transfusions, infants of HIV-infected mothers and partners of heterosexual men.

Building on the Nobel Prize-winning research on reverse transcriptase by David Baltimore (1975), the discovery of HIV as the cause of AIDS (1984), a blood test that could protect blood supplies and provide diagnoses (1985) and epidemiological studies, experts were able to fight back. “With each new infected demographic and the scientific breakthroughs, we learned important information about how the virus travelled, who was at risk, and how to respond,” Fauci recalled. In addition to robust federal funding of research, Fauci believes that the United States needs to continue strong prevention programmes that address issues that some communities find difficult: “While there is blame to be passed around to almost everyone, I think the fact that the African-American community, especially its clergy, did not get involved with issues of its gay men hurt our efforts.”

An advisor to four U.S. presidents beginning with Ronald Reagan, Fauci believes that HIV epidemic was complicated by the fact that scientists did not understand the social implications of the communities affected by HIV. “Reagan never came out strong enough in combating HIV – I call it the dark years,” said Fauci. “Some think he didn’t respond strong enough because it was a disease of ‘gays, drug addicts, and bath houses’.”

In addition, Fauci believes that in the 1980s, public health officials did not work hard enough on prevention for fear of stigmatising the very people who were most in danger. “We were overly ambitious on finding the miracle cure, as opposed to immediately addressing prevention,” Fauci said. “We did not want to isolate a community that had just gained expressive freedoms.”

As the current president’s lead advisor on HIV/AIDS, Fauci has travelled with former Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson to 11 Sub-Saharan African nations and Haiti. While in Haiti, he met with several people who had benefited from anti-viral medications. In January 2003, George Bush announced the Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a five-year, $15 billion dollar, multifaceted approach to combating the disease around the world. Through the plan, the U.S. Government pledged to work with international, national, and local leaders in supporting an integrated prevention, treatment, and care programme. “With this muscular response from the Bush Administration, along with the recent money from the Clinton Foundation and the Gates Foundation, I think that we are moving the right directions to find a safe vaccine for HIV,” Fauci said.

While some may dispute these claims, including the accuracy of PEPFAR reporting, it is clear that there are significant new resources available for battling this dreadful disease. For those wishing to learn more about recent STEPS-related research on HIV/AIDS, check out the work of Institute of Development Studies
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AAAS Day 3: Saturday 17 Feb 2007

This session featured some of the leading architects of the sustainability science field – Bill Clark, Bob Kates, Pam Matson, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Billie Lee Turner II, as well as Edward Miles and Elinor Ostrom. Even John Holdren, President of the AAAS, took part in the symposium. It was one of the reasons I decided to make the trip across the Atlantic (and draw down on my carbon credits). And the session didn’t disappoint.

I wasn’t the only one enthused by this event. For some reason, the conference organisers didn’t anticipate the large crowd it would draw. It was beyond standing room only, with some participants being forced to stand outside the actual meeting room and peer forlornly over the heads of those fortunate enough to find a place inside. Fortunately, I anticipated the crush and managed to claim a seat near the front of the room.

We were treated to a series of provocative presentations which set out the dimensions of problem-focused and place-specific studies of human-environment interactions at different scales. Pamela Matson from Stanford University kicked of the proceedings with a presentation on the current scope and focus of Sustainability Science. She argued that Sustainability Science sought to support a ‘transition to sustainability’ by addressing two fundamental challenges: meeting the needs of people today and in future and sustaining the life support systems of the planet (i.e. ecosystem functions and services). Borrowing from Donald Stokes’ "Pasteur's Quadrant" idea, Pamela observed that to make this transition will require more “use inspired fundamental research” driven by societal need but performed under the conditions of imagination, flexibility and competition that we associate with traditional basic science. She pointed out the field raised questions about driving forces (transition processes; production-consumption interactions), impacts and consequences (limits; vulnerability and resilience) and guidance (incentives for innovation; institutions for governing human-environment systems; valuing outcomes; and designing effective knowledge action systems).

Robert Kates, an independent scholar and former professor of mine from Clark University, talked on “Reducing Poverty and Hunger in Africa”, a topic he has been pursuing for many years. He described what he called “African Exceptionalism” – the unique challenges Africa faces in terms of its geography, governance, endemic poverty and geopolitics (including colonialism, aid and the impact of globalisation). Bob pointed out that Africa’s problems were manifold and require a plethora of solutions that addressed these at different places and scales. Using agricultural production as an example, he stated that there were many factors that required attention, but, drawing on Von Liebig’s Law of the Minimum (which states that growth is controlled not by the total of resources available, but by the scarcest resource), he observed that one needed to focus attention on the most limiting factor. Thus, for example, in semi-arid areas water might be the limiting factor. If water supply is sufficient, the focus might turn to nutrients. This led him to a discussion of why fertilisers are not being used sufficiently in many parts of Africa, noting that it may be for a variety of reasons: it doesn’t work well or it doesn’t pay enough (costs too much) for farmers; or it’s simply not available due to a range of policy or market failures. Observing the success of the Gates Foundation’s “Grand Challenges to Global Health Initiative” to mobilise resources and concentrate minds on key areas of research and development in the health sector, Bob suggested a similar approach to addressing “Grand Challenges to Sustainability Science”, including: addressing key obstacles to sustainable development; searching for “mid-range solutions”; and promoting transformational, not incremental change. Referring back to his fertiliser example, he outlined a fictitious request for proposals that Gates Foundation (or some other donor) might wish to produce for improving fertiliser use in Africa. This would call for R&D efforts to make nutrients work better in African soils, make nutrients pay for African farmers (possibly by developing low-cost “generic fertilisers” just has we have been developing “generic pharmaceuticals”) and make nutrients available in different forms.

The other presentations by John Schellnhuber from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Edward Miles of the University of Washington, Billie Lee Turner II of Clark University and Elinor Ostrom from Indiana University were equally stimulating. These sessions raised a series of questions on how the dynamic interactions between nature and society can be better incorporated into emerging models and conceptualisations that integrate the Earth system, human development and sustainability. Among other things they asked, how are long-term trends in environment and development reshaping nature-society interactions in ways relevant to sustainability? What determines the vulnerability or resilience of the nature-society system in particular kinds of places and for particular types of ecosystems and human livelihoods? Can scientifically meaningful ‘limits’ or ‘boundaries’ be defined that would provide effective warning of conditions beyond which the nature-society systems incur a significantly increased risk of serious degradation? What systems of incentive structures can most effectively improve social capacity to guide interactions between nature and society toward more sustainable trajectories? How can today's relatively independent activities of research planning, observation, assessment, and decision support be better integrated into systems for adaptive management and societal learning?

Unfortunately for those of us present at the session and those of you reading this blog, the AAAS does not automatically make the presentations available (either posting them online or as hardcopy handouts), so I cannot direct you to the source materials just yet. I can, however, suggest you visit a related workshop on the same theme that was held in Venice, Italy, in October 2006. That event was kind of a dry run of the AAAS event and included some of the same participants. Background papers used in that workshop can be found at:

John Holdren, the AAAS President, finished off the session with a presentation on “Sustainability Science: The Way Forward”. He argued that the most important ingredient missing at present is an integrated understanding of what he called an “an agreed map”. What does exist is an understanding and appreciation of the need for research that is interdisciplinary, intersectoral and integrative (across disciplines and scales) to help us think systematically about parts of the terrain that still need to be settled and those we have some confidence in. He noted that there are now numerous initiatives underway to link key institutions and efforts to create a more complete and up-to-date “map”, including:
· The Forum on Science and Innovation for Sustainable Development (mentioned earlier)
· A new Sustainability Science section in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

· A new initiative of the US National Science Foundation on Human-Environment Systems
· An upcoming symposium of the International Union of Biological Sciences on “Biological Sciences for the 21st Century: Meeting the Challenges of Sustainable Development in an Era of Global Change”

· AAAS Roundtable on Sustainability Science Programs (discussed below)

In closing, Holdren posed a set of questions to the audience, including:
· How to make participation a key element of these processes? (in response, he mentioned again the idea of scientists committing to tithe 10% of their time to working directly with the people we want to help; joining committees that matter; etc.)
· How to bring about the genuine “co-production” of knowledge with both local people and decision-makers (in order to learn from them and inform and influence policy and practice)?
· How to develop a common language to help communicate the complexity and dynamic nature of sustainability science while ensuring we can identify practical and effective approaches and applications (for this, he said, we should learn from other applied sciences)?
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AAAS Day 3: Saturday 17 Feb 2007

Today is the day I have been waiting for at AAAS, as there are a series of symposia and topical lectures on the theme of ‘Science and Policy of Sustainability’, all of which relate to one degree or another to ‘Sustainability Science’. In many ways, Sustainability Science goes to the heart of the STEPS agenda.
As Bill Clark, one of its driving forces, points out in a recent article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Like “agricultural science” and “health science,” sustainability science is a field defined by the problems it addresses rather than by the disciplines it employs… [T]he field seeks…a transition towards sustainability” – which in my view relates very nicely to the STEPS ‘pathways approach’ – “improving society’s capacity to use the earth in ways that simultaneously to meet the needs of a much larger but stabilizing human population,…sustain the life support systems of the planet, and…substantially reduce hunger and poverty.” Increasingly, however, a core sustainability science research program has begun to take shape that transcends the concerns of its foundational disciplines and focuses instead on understanding the complex dynamics that arise from interactions between human and environmental systems. In this respect, the Sustainability Science agenda and the STEPS focus on dynamics, governance and designs is very much interlinked.

Over the next few days, I hope to report on my participation in several Sustainability Science events and my encounters with some of the leading lights in this emerging field. Before reporting on the actual sessions, however, I should direct your attention to a website run by the AAAS which is tracking the expanding field of Sustainability Science and opening up debate and dialogue through its virtual . The forum monitors an increasing number of research initiatives, meetings and programmes devoted to training the next generation of sustainability scientists. You will find the STEPS Centre listed there (but more about that later).

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Tuesday, 20 February 2007


AAAS Day 2: Friday 16 Feb 2007

The AAAS clearly sees itself as a global organisation, despite maintaining the ‘American’ bit it its title. To build on this year’s meeting theme of ‘Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being’ and reinforce its international credentials, the AAAS announced that the theme for its 2008 meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, will be on ‘Science and Technology from a Global Perspective’.
This will emphasise the power of S&T as well as education to assist less-developed segments of the world society, to improve partnerships among countries to solve common problems and to spur knowledge-driven transformations across a host of fields. The AAAS has opened a call for symposium proposals to all its members on this topic, which is clearly a central focus of the STEPS Centre and our partners. If we manage to gain approval for organising a STEPS-related event at next year’s meeting, we will announce the details on our website.
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Monday, 19 February 2007


AAAS Day 2: Friday 16 Feb 2007

In a wide-ranging lecture on “The Intersection of Burgeoning Human Populations and Natural Hazards, Caltech geologist Kerry Sieh introduced a new unit of measure today during a widely talked-about speech on earthquake preparedness. He explained that 1 “rumsfeld” (in honour of former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld) equals $100 billion per year, roughly what the US has spent on average per year during the four-year Iraq war.

At the same time, only about $2 million – or 20 “microrumsfelds” – has been spent in recent years on preparing infrastructure to withstand natural disasters for the roughly half a billion people who reside between Iran and Sumatra and live in grave danger of earthquakes and tsunamis. Sieh says he's being generous on that total, and just a few "fractions of a rumsfeld" spent by the US each year could spread much good cheer for American foreign policy.

Sieh’s new unit made the audience chuckle, but it also conveyed an important point – we’ve got our priorities seriously out of order, even when it comes to ‘global security issues’.
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AAAS Day 2: Friday 16 Feb 2007

Another interesting session looked at the challenge of producing more food with less water by improving water use efficiencies in a variety of ways. While the focus of most of the presentations was US irrigation systems and technologies, the issues they raised are of relevance to rich and poor countries alike.
Because of an increase in population, urbanization and need for improved environmental services, the water demands drinking, sanitation, urban irrigation, industry and environmental uses are outbidding and reducing the water available for agriculture. Shrinkage of groundwater resources has aggravated the situation in many countries, and the greater frequency of more severe droughts predicted by some global climate change models are a cause for concern. In addition, the global warming appears to be increasing the water requirements of plants. Thus, the questions for the western United States and all semi-arid regions of the world are: How can irrigated agriculture sustain productivity and meet the growing need for food and fibre with reduced water available for irrigation? What research knowledge and technologies are needed to accomplish this sustainability? This symposium highlighted a range of actions and technologies to increase water use efficiency of crops, increase salinity management and reuse of waste water and reduce field losses of rain and irrigation water, among other things. Unfortunately, many of the technologies described by presenters are decidedly high-tech, requiring significantly levels of capital and training well beyond the means of most developing countries.

The only presentation from a developing country perspective came from John Bennett, Senior Molecular Biologist at the International Rice Research Institute, on “Can Genetics and Biotechnology Create More Crops for Less Water?” Bennett noted that in when considering investments in crop breeding and biotech to make rice systems more productive, one must distinguish between IWP – irrigated water productivity and PWP – precipitation water productivity. The former relates to irrigation and crop management and is open to genetic improvement for increasing irrigation efficiency, while the latter involves catchment management and genetic improvement for drought tolerance. IRRI is currently working to develop new varieties of rice with traits that for water-scarce environments that are more efficient in their use of water and more drought resistant, including those with traits to:
· Minimise non-transpirational uses of water
· Reduce transpiration without reduction production
· Increase production without increase transpiration, and
· Use cheap water (brackish, recycled, saline)

Bennett observed that no single trait is likely to work sufficiently and, therefore, in most cases a “package of traits” will be required. He argued that by investing in the R&D of global public goods such as new drought resistant, irrigation efficient rice varieties, the international community can bear the costs of improving the productivity of rice. If the emphasis is instead placed on improving management of the rice production system, it will be the farmers who have to pay (in terms of labour and other investments).

Interestingly, Bennett described advances in ‘Aerobic Rice Production” in upland systems in Brazil and China as a means of boosting productivity and saving water. When I pointed out that his description of this approach sounded strikingly similar to the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) that developed in Madagascar and spread to other parts of Africa and Asia, he said that SRI had been discredited and was not worth investigating further. However, he failed to draw a clear distinction between Aerobic Rice Production (and dry-direct-seeded rice production systems) and SRI.
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AAAS Day 2: Friday 16 Feb 2007

Renewable energy from biomass is all the rage these days, with policy makers from Brazil to the US diverting huge sums of money into R&D in a race to develop new biofuels to reduce their country’s dependence on imported fossil fuels and generate more clean energy. This session brought together an array of speakers with a decidedly US-centric focus on the subject.
In a nutshell, they were demonstrating that renewable energy from biomass has the potential to significantly contribute to a more diverse and secure domestic energy portfolio for the US. The presenters – including James McMillan from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Reid Detchon from the Energy Future Coalition – noted that there are significant policy, economic and technical barriers to achieving the potential of energy from forests and agricultural lands, but with focused R&D and market incentives that reflect the multiple ecological and social benefits of energy from biomass, the goals of providing 25 percent of America’s energy from renewable sources by 2025 or replacing 30 percent of important oil by 2030 are attainable.
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AAAS Day 2: Friday 16 Feb 2007

The challenge at a conference of the size and scope of this year’s AAAS annual meeting is managing to attend the diverse array of fascinating symposia and lectures on offer, particularly when many of the most interesting ones are scheduled in parallel. Nearly 200 scientific sessions for general registrants will focus to one degree or another on ‘Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being,’ the theme set out by John Holdren in his opening address. Today, for instance, I wanted to attend a session on ‘Renewable Energy from Biomass: Technology, Policy and Sustainability’, which was set against an equally intriguing one on “Water Crisis in Agriculture: How to Produce More with Less.’ The rather unsatisfactory solution was to spend some time in both, but it did give me insights into some of the latest thinking on both subjects Read more


AAAS Day 1: Thursday 15 Feb 2007

AAAS President John P. Holdren (pictured right) used his presidential address to urge swift action to build a sustainable future. Challenges such as poverty, climate change and nuclear proliferation pose global risks that require scientists and engineers to join with political and business leaders in a concerted search for solutions, Holdren said in opening the association's annual meeting.

Here in San Francisco, Holdren, who is director of The Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts and the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard University, described a world poised at an unprecedented moment of decision. Without swift and urgent action, he said, the problems could spiral toward disastrous, permanent changes for all of life on Earth.

Holdren's address, entitled ‘Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being’, was a sweeping review of evidence which, taken together, shows a planet under profound stress. He said that one of the central problems, and the most complex, is ending the reliance on fossil fuels that is damaging and destabilising the Earth's ecosystem. "Reliable and affordable energy is essential for meeting basic human needs and fuelling economic growth," he said. "But many of the most difficult and dangerous environmental problems at every level of economic development arise from the harvesting, transport, processing, and conversion of energy."

To address the gathering challenges, he said that world leaders would have to work on a range of fronts - economic, diplomatic and technological. He urged scientists and engineers to get personally involved in developing solutions, and he drew a standing ovation when he called on them to "tithe" 10% of their time to "to working to increase the benefits of science and technology for the human condition and to decrease the liabilities."

In his address, Holdren identified four key S&T challenges for achieving sustainable well-being: Meeting the basic needs of the poor; managing the competition for land, soil, water, and the net primary productivity of the planet; mastering the energy-economy-environment dilemma; and moving toward a nuclear-weapon-free world.

But he offered compelling evidence that the world is not making sufficient progress on any of those challenges. For example, he said, efforts to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals have been uneven, at best. Child mortality levels show improvement, but remain "really appalling." And he described the United States as the "second stingiest" among nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in providing assistance as a percentage of gross domestic product. [Only Italy ranks lower, he said.]

On environmental and climate issues, Holdren stressed that the emergency is not looming in the future, but is having a palpable impact now. "Climate change is not a problem for our children and our grandchildren – it is a problem for us," he said. "It's already causing harm." 2005 was the hottest year on record, he said. The 13 hottest years on record all have occurred since 1990. 23 out of the 24 hottest years have occurred since 1980. The sort of heat wave that killed 35,000 people in Europe in the summer of 2003 is expected to become normal by 2050.

By 2100, he said, some projections say global temperatures could rival those of the Eocene epoch some 35 million years ago, a time of dramatic global warming that caused dramatic disruptions – waves of extinction – in Earth's ecosystem. He quoted a colleague who envisioned "crocodiles off of Greenland and palm trees in Wyoming." But the warming temperatures don't simply make the weather warmer, they destabilise the weather and generate more extremes, Holdren observed. Some areas are getting wetter; others are experiencing unusual long-term droughts. Cyclones are becoming more powerful. Between 1950 and 2000, the number of major floods and wildfires has increased dramatically in almost every region of the world.

Holdren suggested that addressing such challenges effectively to improve the overall well-being of humanity will require a radical reconfiguration of policy and economies – and daily life – on a global scale. World leaders would have to cooperate as never before. Such cooperation would have to yield new commitments and strategies to resolve the crushing poverty that affects perhaps two billion people. Further, he noted that a cap on carbon emissions or a carbon tax to encourage use of alternative fuels is "desperately needed”.

Against such a backdrop, the threat of nuclear war or terrorism presents a further risk of global destabilisation and a threat toward sustainable well-being, said Holdren, a long-time advocate of nuclear disarmament. Prohibition of nuclear weapons "is not only a practical but a legal and moral necessity," he argued. There would be challenges and risks in a world where nuclear weapons had been eliminated, he acknowledged, "but they would be far smaller than the dangers of a world in which nuclear weapons are permitted and thus, inevitably, widespread."

Holdren said solutions must be pursued across a range of channels – economics, science, medicine, technology, and education. And those strategies must be applied to a range of related problems – providing clean water and medical care, reducing carbon emissions, checking deforestation and improving public understanding of actions that can address the challenges at hand.

To address climate change, there could be "geo-engineering" projects to help cool the atmosphere or to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, he said, though they would likely require enormous investment. But he cautioned against expectations that a single technological solution such as nuclear fusion would emerge to solve energy and climate problems. "Belief in technological miracles," he told reporters, "is generally a mistake,” a point with which we in STEPS would fully agree.
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Inside track from the AAAS annual meeting

John Thompson was among the 10,000 scientists, journalists, students and members of the public to attend the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Francisco over the past five days. The theme this year was 'Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being’.

Representing the STEPS Centre, John sat in on the symposia, listened to lectures and briefings and networked long into the night. He has written up his impressions and insights from the event for the Crossing blog.

A resource geographer, John jointly leads the STEPS Centre's food and agriculture research and is a Fellow in the Institute of Development Studies Knowledge, Technology and Society (KNOTS) Team.
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