Sustainable development also requires transformation of science

By Fábio de Castro

Agência FAPESP – After concluding that the relationship between science and society should be re-established to make global sustainability feasible, the international scientific community has realized that the first steps in that direction have already been taken.
Science for sustainability, a new paradigm of knowledge, is already being constructed, according to Lidia Brito, director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Scientific Policy division.
The former Science Minister in Mozambique, Brito participated in the “Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development” held in Rio de Janeiro from June 11-15, 2012.
The five-day event had the objective of debating a new international scientific agenda for the period that will follow the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (RIO+20), held in Rio de Janeiro from June 13 -22, 2012.
The Forum was organized by the International Council for Science (ICSU) in partnership with UNESCO, the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO), the International Social Sciences Council, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation and the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.
The discussions taking place during the forum are aligned with the State of the Planet Declaration, a document that synthesized the results of debates at Planet Under Pressure, co-chaired by Brito in London, England, where more than 3,000 scientists involved with several socioenvironmental issues discussed what the international scientific community’s position would be at RIO+20.
One of the main conclusions of the declaration is that the exploitation of terrestrial systems has its limits and that the current pressure levels in this system could cause a global humanitarian emergency characterized by the intensification of social, economic and environmental crises.
Overcoming these problems will require a new pact between science and society with major connectivity between the leadership of all sectors, and, according to Brito, this change is already underway.
In an interview with Agência FAPESP, Brito spoke about the new paradigm for global sustainability, which requires that the scientist is increasingly multidisciplinary and more participative in society. She also explained why she dislikes the expression “green economy” and affirmed that the GDP (gross domestic product) is not enough to measure the success of the development of a country.

Agência FAPESP – Is the scientific community coming to RIO+20 with a clear message for society?
Lidia Brito – There is a clear position, and there are a few messages. One of the major conclusions of the planet’s scientific community is that we have entered a new era, the Anthropocene, an era in which humans are the major driving force for the planet’s destiny. Therefore, humanity has a new level of responsibility to the planet. Another conclusion is that the Anthropocene is an era of interconnections. In this age, everything is interconnected. This interconnection also occurs at a critical point, the planetary frontiers. Within the changes that we have introduced to the planetary system, we are reaching these interconnected frontiers. It is not just an isolated increase in temperature, nor is it the acidification of oceans or loss of biodiversity in an individual manner. Rather, the key issue is the way that all this is connected.

Agência FAPESP – Is it correct to say that this same profusion of interconnections that generates global problems also affords opportunities to deal with them?
Lidia Brito – Yes. This profound interconnection is a risk because whatever we do to push one of these frontiers to maintain the level of stability will create instability and uncertainty in all of the other frontiers. However, we also have to see this society and this interconnected planetary system as an unprecedented opportunity that is available to us. The reason for this opportunity is that change is quicker. Ideas and solutions that can take us to a zone of greater stability are more feasible because everything is connected. However, this principle means that science has to change. This is the major challenge we have ahead of us.

Agência FAPESP – What does the scientist need to change in terms of attitudes and ways of working, both individually and collectively?
Lidia Brito – Individually, the scientist has to understand that it is not enough to work solely within the comfort zone of his or her discipline. Rather, it is necessary to connect with other areas of science, to other knowledge systems, so that together, new solutions can appear. These are solutions that often are rooted in existing knowledge, but by bringing in other disciplines, other manners of doing science, other methodologies, and other perspectives, the process creates a different field for finding solutions.

Agência FAPESP – Do we need to reflect on the interconnectivity within scientific activity itself?
Lidia Brito – Yes, exactly, with multidisciplinarity and even transdisciplinarity, we use methods from other areas of science for our own scientific field. This is a significant challenge for the scientist of today: opening up to other communities, to other colleagues and other areas of science. On the collective global level of science as a planetary community, we should not only work together on the different perspectives of knowledge but also principally engage in a much more open interaction with society and decision-makers – on a government, private sector and civil society level – to co-design and co-produce these solutions that are needed for global sustainability.

Agência FAPESP – Do scientists need to increase their power of influence to be capable of bringing scientific subsidies to decision processes?
Lidia Brito – Of course. To do so, they must interact in a manner that does not make these other communities feel excluded from the decision or design of that which is the scientific question. Scientists should not unilaterally dictate solutions based on their knowledge, or it will not reach society. The real role of scientists today is to say that these are questions that we face as humanity, and together – the scientific community, political managers, the private sector, civil society – we will find science-based solutions to these questions that afflict all of us.

Agência FAPESP – Will this be a long process?
Lidia Brito – I think it is a question of the urgent demand for change. We cannot wait too long to make this change. What is good in this whole process is that we already have an initiative, Future Earth, through which the global scientific community seeks to bring all sciences and stakeholders – the actors in the sustainable development process – to the table to define which questions we have to investigate, so that together we will manage to do this. It is a very interesting moment because of what is happening with the rearrangement of scientific governance and the way we see science, which is clearly on the table and being influenced. And I think the fact that it is happening in Rio de Janeiro is emblematic because in 1992 there was a drastic change, which, I believe, is once again occurring in 2012. The scientific community is bringing its conviction to RIO+20 in saying: we realize what needs to change, and we will change it together. This is what we bring to the conference table.

Agência FAPESP – There is a lot of talk about technology in this forum. There is often a distorted impression of the role of technology, as if it has to provide solutions to continue business as usual following the same standards of consumption, production and environmental pressure. How do we move beyond this distortion?
Lidia Brito – We simply cannot continue these standards. That is out of the question. Technology has an enormous role in the process and in sustainable development. But alone, technology is not enough. It must be accompanied by a social transformation, awareness and social commitment that we have to incorporate global sustainability as something that is part of our own fabric. Every day, in every action we take, global sustainability must be present. What makes the difference, perhaps, is this term global. Not North or South, not rich or poor. All of us. It has to be in the fabric of our nations and our individual and collective behavior. Only then can we aspire to a more stable world.

Agência FAPESP – To what extent is the awareness of the centrality of sustainable development rooted in the scientific community?
Lidia Brito – When it published its 2010 Science Report, UNESCO had already shown that there was an effective change in the scientific community’s scenario. What we see objectively is much more international collaboration and much more interdisciplinary science. We believe that we are already in an era of changing paradigms. Science for global sustainability is the new paradigm for science.

Agência FAPESP – So science for global sustainability is not only an aspiration of researchers but also a new reality that is beginning to take shape?
Lidia Brito – It is something that is permeating several schools and several levels of production of knowledge and science. One example of this is the Future Earth initiative, which is the scientific community’s commitment to work together in several areas of knowledge. It is also a commitment of those who support global research: those who contribute funding to research are with us in this commitment. We are ready to do another type of science that better responds to global challenges. Now, there is much to do. One of the major challenges is guaranteeing that there is no exclusion in these processes. Part of this movement consists of creating scientific capacity in countries that do not have it. Brazil clearly has an enormous role in this.

Agência FAPESP – Why?
Lidia Brito – Because you have managed to create scientific capacity in several areas of knowledge. Brazil has experience in this co-production, in this multidisciplinarity in the scientific approach to sustainable development. Brazil could be a model for the establishment of goals in this context. It is a country that has shown a major capacity to assemble knowledge networks. You are ahead in many aspects; it is symbolic that we are discussing this in Rio de Janeiro.
Agência FAPESP – Several Brazilian researchers whom we interviewed have shown a certain skepticism relative to the so-called “green economy.” What response can you give them?
Lidia Brito – To be honest, we at UNESCO do not talk about a green economy. We talk about a green society. I think the skepticism of investigators comes from that: the discussion is not about the economy. What we are certain about is that in the Anthropocene, it is not possible to speak only about one of the blocks of sustainable development. The economy cannot be discussed without considering social, cultural and environmental issues. They are interconnected and cannot be addressed independently. I am glad that Brazilian scientists do not want to talk just about the economy. We have to talk about a green society to highlight this force of change.

Agência FAPESP – Are you in favor of abandoning the concept of GDP and creating other measures of wealth?
Lidia Brito – Clearly, we cannot have only the GDP as a measure of the success of a society. The GDP is very limited. It does not measure social inclusion or the harmony between humans and nature, nor does it measure the well-being of people or equity. We have to have other measures. For this reason, in the conclusions of Planet under Pressure, we advocate the use of the scientific community to define other targets that will be used to develop models for integrated measures of economy, society and the environment. Yes, I am of the opinion that we have to have other measures of success for a country that will consider sustainable development in all of its pillars.

Source and Photo: FAPESP, July 4th, 2012
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