European Regional workshop for Future Earth: Piecing together the puzzle of Future Earth

Tanja Suni and Iina Koskinen

Future Earth is a large organization, and piecing together an integrated group from all its different components is a massive undertaking. This November, in the beautiful alpine city of Innsbruck, Future Earth core projects, national committees, secretariats and committees were finally able to come together and talk about one another’s needs, expectations and ideas for Future Earth. Representatives from DG Research & Innovation, Belmont Forum, COST, and JPI Water and European Environment Agency provided valuable comments from the stakeholder’s point of view.

Locating Future Earth in the European research and funding landscape

The workshop was hosted by the European Alliance of Global Change Research Committees, Austrian National Committee for Global Change and University of Innsbruck. Together with the European Future Earth Community, the organizers had put together a programme that started from the vision and collaborators of Future Earth and moved on to exploring the strengths, roles and tasks of its different components.


Day I started with brief introductory presentations from key stakeholders such as DG Research & Innovation, COST Association, and European Environment Agency, which laid out the landscape of global change research in Europe. The European centre of Future Earth presented their views on European implementation of Future Earth and discussed the links between Future Earth strategic research agenda and the SDGs.

Also, we heard about the all-important data-providing sector, the ESFRI research infrastructures and the global SMEAR concept, both of which provide quality-controlled environmental data needed for Future Earth Knowledge Action Networks and core projects. During the discussions we acknowledged that socioeconomic data is more difficult to access than the environmental data since the socioeconomic data is being collected by national statistics agencies, feeding them into international organisations like Eurostat and the UN. 

What is the best scientific niche for Future Earth in Europe?

These introductions set the scene for the first session of participatory small-group discussions that explored the scientific niche and the vision for Future Earth in years to come.

A clear message from the small group discussions was that Future Earth need not define a new set of European grand challenges: the grand challenges are well known and can be grouped in many different ways, for instance, to 17 SDGs or 8 key focal challenges. What Future Earth can bring to the table is knowledge about how these challenges should be addressed. The basic pillars of solutions-oriented research, interdisciplinarity, co-design with stakeholders, and the interconnected nature of the challenges in the context of global change are what separate Future Earth from all the other operators and provide a thematic niche.

Strengths, tasks, and roles of the different Future Earth components

The second part of Day I was devoted to the strengths, tasks, and roles of the different Future Earth components. We heard introductions from Future Earth Science and Engagement committees, secretariats, core projects, and national committees, and took these viewpoints to the second session of participatory small-group discussions.

The new concept of Knowledge Action Networks (KAN) was seen as a good way to attract new funding. At the same time, the role of the core projects is to feed and refresh the KANs with new scientific results stemming from basic research. National committees were seen as a crucial link between scientists and stakeholders since most sustainability decisions happen at the national and sub-national level. All Future Earth components were seen to have a convening function in different sectors of the scientific community and society.

Best practice on co-design and stakeholder engagement

Day II was planned around best practice examples on co-design and stakeholder engagement and on using this information to plan potential joint proposals for Horizon2020 themes.

To start the day, Edouard Michel from the French global hub presented two potential calls and Paul Vossen from DG Research & Innovation informed us about a third one. With these opportunities at the back of our minds, we then heard examples of co-design and stakeholder engagement in environment-society interactions in Senegal and Arctic Canada.

Deborah Goffner and Sylvie Blangy from Observatoires Hommes-Milieux showed that best practice is really everywhere. Hilde Eggermont from the ERANET BioDiversa, a network of biodiversity funders, talked about co-design in biodiversity research, very well documented in the BioDiversa Stakeholder Engagement Handbook. Finally, Rebecca Oliver from the Stockholm global hub made a compelling case of business working on global change –related issues and offered to help any core projects or national committees looking for enterprises to engage in their research.

The third session of small-group discussions expressed clearly that part of the Future Earth community wishes to get co-design training whereas another part is already experienced in it. An important point was that structures outside Future Earth often act as fundamental obstacles for new kind of co-designed research. The incentive system and career paths in universities are not always conducive to efforts towards societal influence when the ultimate goal is publishing more and more papers. Unless this changes, a very small number of researchers, mostly those who can find a place in transdisciplinary institutions, will be able to participate in transdisciplinary research. However, Future Earth needs both trans-, inter-, and monodisciplinary scientists in its work: basic research is the foundation for innovations. However, Future Earth should push for a change on regional and national level by promoting the Future Earth concept and the need for new ways of gaining career merit for societal influence.


Open questions

The workshop was very fruitful but there are still some questions that remain unanswered. There is a need to define more clearly what Future Earth is now and what it can become. This can be somewhat different in different contexts and scales: the global change landscape is much more populated in Europe than in many other parts of the world, and so the role of Future Earth can also change from continent to continent.

Another key question is the entry point to Future Earth. If a scientist, a student, or a stakeholder wants to participate in Future Earth, how should they do this? What activities can they join? Who can they contact? This is where Future Earth could learn from companies and NGOs that usually have very clear instructions on their websites about who to contact with questions of products, services, jobs, and other activities.

The European Alliance Secretariat will summarise all the discussions from the meeting. The next step will be to include these ideas in the implementation plan for Future Earth Europe being designed at the European Centre in the UK.


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