Earth System Research Priorities

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Science  17 Jul 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5938, pp. 245
DOI: 10.1126/science.1178591

Human-induced climate change was unknown outside of limited scientific circles just 25 years ago, but it has now become the focus of intense national discussions and international negotiations. One chapter in the story of how this issue moved from lab benches to national capitals was recognized by the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, which was co-awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for its influential assessments of the state of scientific knowledge. But the story also involves the research itself; in particular, that catalyzed by the Global Environmental Change Research Programmes* and the Earth System Science Partnership. These programs, sponsored by the International Council for Science (ICSU) in partnerships with other international science organizations (www.icsu.org), have helped to catalyze and guide global environmental research for several decades. But it's time to propose new research priorities, and ICSU seeks input through a Web consultation process now under way.

The Global Environmental Change Research Programmes have played major roles in characterizing global biogeochemical cycles, trends and cycles of natural climate change and human-induced warming, and the consequences of those changes for global cycles and human well-being. They have strengthened national research initiatives by forging international research collaborations to study the functioning of the Earth system. But the most pressing research questions are now quite different from those that shaped these programs. The major challenges today include the need to understand complex interrelationships among biological, geochemical, climate, and social systems; the consequences of global change for the Earth system and society and the feedback loops involved; and the science of mitigation, adaptation, and sustainability. Natural sciences should no longer dictate the Earth system research agenda; social sciences will be at least as important in its next phase.


ICSU is spearheading a consultation process in cooperation with the International Social Science Council (ISSC) to renew the focus and framework of Earth system research for the next decade and beyond. The goal is to identify the most urgent research questions and establish the most effective ways to answer them. The process began in 2006 with reviews of the Global Environmental Change Research Programmes. The reviews recommended the creation of a single research framework, an idea also supported by many agencies involved in the International Group of Funding Agencies for Global Change Research. Thus, the focus is now on shaping the new research agenda.

In the past, a small group of scientists would be charged with determining the most pressing research questions. But new communication technologies now allow the wisdom and expertise of a far broader global community of natural and social scientists, technology experts, decision-makers, and citizens to play a role. From 15 July to 15 August 2009, ICSU invites the broad community to shape the Earth system research agenda by contributing ideas and perspectives to a Web forum (http://visioning.icsu.org), as well as by voting on those submitted by others. The results of this online consultation will feed into a September meeting, convened by ICSU and ISSC to distill the input into a set of proposed research priorities.

We know from the experience of the IPCC and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment that the global research community has the capability to answer many of the most challenging scientific questions about our planet. Now, given the urgent need to confront human-induced global environmental change and the imperative to focus our scientific resources, we need to spread the widest possible net to make sure that the world's scientists will be addressing the questions that are most critical.

  • * Includes the World Climate Research Programme, International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change, and DIVERSITAS.

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