Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht, 2018-02-19
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  • Challenges

    Towards a Global Research & Assessment Alliance

    Illustration of the Earth Illustration of the Earth

    Humankind has become a quasi-geological force on Planet Earth. Our species is the most successful ever, still growing in numbers and absorbing more and more natural resources for its industrial metabolism, which is largely based on fossil fuels and other dwindling stocks. As a consequence, societies around the world are currently witnessing severe crises that call for a “Great Transformation” toward sustainability.

    Climate change is just one manifestation of the emerging problem tangle. Many other challenges such as the distortion of ecosystem services, the loss of biodiversity, the degradation of land, the irregular urbanization process, the aggravating water scarcity, the disturbances in terrestrial and marine food chains or the ubiquitous pollution of all environmental media have to be taken into consideration.

    At the same time, the gains of the human enterprise are distributed quite unevenly: abject poverty, lack of education, insufficient access to health services and other social disparities persist worldwide in spite of dramatic economic growth in many countries. Securing a life in dignity for all people alive while maintaining the essential ecosystems for future generations presently looks like squaring the circle. The UN has recognised this unprecedented challenge and therefore is about to set well-chosen Millennium Sustainable Development Goals (MSDGs) that complement and transcend the conventional Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

    Science will have to play an unprecedented part too if that circle is to be squared indeed. Among the many reasons supporting such a statement, two stick out:

    First, modern civilization is virtually a “brainchild”, generated by the Enlightenment and the consistent application of reasoning through the scientific method. From an evolutionary point of view, it would be foolish not to harness research and innovation for overcoming the problems that those cultural forces keep on creating. So the best possible science should be employed to identify pathways and measures for perpetually improving the human conditions. Truly transformational strategies may be needed to overcome the climate crisis and global demographic change.

    Second, the scientific community as distributed all over the planet is arguably spearheading the eventual development of a cosmopolitan paradigm for humankind. This is so, because the generation of genuine knowledge is based on community-wide best practices, that reflect the universalities of reality as epitomized by the laws of physics or genomics. For instance, quantum mechanics governs the development of modern electronics irrespective of politics, culture or religious belief. Thus scientists, wherever they work, have “the truth” as a common reference point. Such a unique calibration is able to transcend national interests which keep on dominating multilateralism in a world composed of some 200 sovereign states.

    In summary, the knowledge enterprise has both the capacity and responsibility to find and propose global solutions for global problems, yet this will require new forms of self-organization and novel concepts for the dialogue between science and society.

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