Essays on Science and Society

Systems Science for Policy Evaluation

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Science  15 Jun 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6087, pp. 1398
DOI: 10.1126/science.1224642

Narrowly focused, single-disciplinary science alone cannot adequately underpin policies and solutions to resolve major sustainability challenges. For science to play a pivotal role in addressing the green growth and sustainability challenges of Rio+20, or the UN MDGs, we must rapidly refocus intellectual and economic investments toward multiscale, integrated, interdisciplinary approaches that consider social, economic, and environmental aspects, that look across and between borders and sectors, and that identify feedbacks or the cobenefits of a policy or management decision, before it is made.

One example of this “systems” approach is the Global Energy Assessment (GEA), a multiyear, multidisciplinary study (coordinated by IIASA), whose findings will be released during Rio+20. The GEA links energy to climate, air quality, human health and mortality, economic growth, urbanization, water, land use, and other factors. The GEA scenarios find that energy access for all (by 2050) is possible with cobenefits of limiting warming to 2°C, improving air quality and human health, and stimulating economic growth within a green economy framework. A similar analysis on water resources will be undertaken by IIASA, UN Water, and the World Water Council.

On the basis of our experience with the GEA, realizing the sustainability goals of Rio+20 will require investment in integrated analyses to fully understand the Earth system (human and natural). This must be enabled by substantial growth in public-private partnerships that stimulate and fund activities that encourage collaboration between social and natural scientists and that engage key stakeholders in the user community at all stages of the research cycle—from inception to implementation. In addition, academic merit should value and reward integrated, multidisciplinary “systems science,” with scholarships and tenure no longer dominated by single disciplines. Above all else, success requires clear leadership and defined objectives.

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