By Elizabeth M.H. Newbury, Alex Long, Metis Meloche & Magdalena Baranowska
“50 years ago, 20 million young people protested about the damage to our Earth. Over the past 5 decades, a lot has happened. Our ozone layer is healing, renewable energy is booming worldwide, environmental awareness has never been higher. But some risks are even more acute than before,” said Denis Hayes, coordinator of the first Earth Day and founder of Earth Day Network, in a video message at a recent Wilson Center event commemorating the 50th Earth Day.
The 50th Anniversary of Earth Day was an opportunity to both reflect on progress made and identify approaches to addressing current and future challenges, including the impact of COVID-19. To address these challenges, panelists highlighted the need for inter-sectoral cooperation and cross-community collaboration. In addition to data transparency and transdisciplinary approaches within academia, experts stressed the importance of public engagement to make science and data more accessible to those beyond academic circles. Technological innovation was showcased as a way to facilitate academic collaboration, and was presented as a useful tool for building community resilience to environmental challenges.
The Path Forward Is Interdisciplinary
Effective resilience to global and environmental challenges requires a breakdown of silos across academia, policy, and funding. Scientific research and innovation is desperately needed, said Shanna McClain, NASA Earth Science Divisions Global Partnership Manager and Lead for Risk Reduction and Resilience. “But on the other hand, I want to know what it’s going to do to help people on the ground that are facing real-world problems…We need to take interdisciplinary approaches,” said McClain, “to find partners who are interested in solving these complexities.” The production of scientific knowledge, then, can act as a “hinge between sectors” that are not working together, said Maisa Rojas, Associate Professor for the Department of Geophysics at the University of Chile.
An interdisciplinary approach, however, is only possible through information transparency and open data. “The way we do science is through transparently sharing data,” said Rojas, “making our methods clear and open—that’s very important.” Solving the pressing issues of our time requires scholars to have data and to share them in order to bring different disciplines to the table, she said.
“It’s all coming together. You can’t separate it anymore…There is a longing, I think, for people to join forces and to be better connected,” said Ruth Anna Stolk, Executive Director of the Smithsonian Conservation Commons. This means including decision-makers and making the science accessible to more productively address environmental challenges.
Connecting Science and Community
Scientific practice and publishing the data is only a very small piece of the story, said Stolk. The utility of scientific research lies in its connection to the community. “I want to know what it’s going to do to help people on the ground that are facing real-world problems,” said McClain.
Engagement at the community level is crucial, not only for the research itself, but also to ensure a lasting impact on the environment. “[We] got a group of scientists together to talk about the future of our fieldwork and how we could build better synergy with communities and with one another. And a number of the scientists pushed back on us and said, ‘We are at the point where our work isn’t going to mean anything if we don’t change human attitudes towards nature and if we can’t engage our broader institution as a cultural leader in changing attitudes,’” said Stolk.
Looking to the next 50 years, environmental action will be most effective when solutions engage at both the domestic and global community level. “What it comes down to,” said Aaron Salzberg Director, Wilson Center Global Fellow and Director of the University of North Carolina’s Water Institute, “is it’s about how countries work together, how ministries within governments work together, to make sound decisions.” “There is no single solution that can solve this problem. It will require a global concerted effort,” said Winnie Lau, Senior Officer at Pew Charitable Trusts.
Technology is a crucial tool in streamlining environmental recovery efforts and gathering stakeholders around critical issues. “We need to develop solutions that fit the whole range of our society,” said Edan Dionne, Vice President of the Environmental, Energy and Chemical Management Programs at IBM. David Kline, Coral Reef Ecologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, provided an example through the importance of technology in preserving coral reefs. “The only way we’re going to make a long-term difference,” he said, “is really to provide tools that give the communities the resources they need to deal with these really challenging problems.”
Engaging the community through technological initiatives can strengthen the efforts of scientific innovation. Initiatives like Earth Challenge 2020—a citizen science effort led by Earth Day Network, the U.S. Department of State, and the Wilson Center—engage communities directly in the curation of scientific data. Expanding public engagement and accessibility of scientific data is an important way to ensure that country, community, and company leaders have access to “the best science” to make “the best choices” possible for the environment, said Hayes.
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