Research in Three Dimensions

If you start talking about "sustainable development," do not expect anyone to be able to follow your thoughts. According to the latest representative survey in Germany, Umweltbewußtsein 2000, only 13 % of Germans are familiar with this term. Not so in the scientific community: A look at the funding priorities of the federal ministry for research and education ( BMBF) reveals that innovations for sustainable development take a prominent place in the government's current research portfolio.

The concept of sustainable development has been floating around for quite some time--the term was coined in 1987 by the United Nations (UN) World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED; also known as the Brundtland Commission)--but is only just beginning to curry political favor.

So, what is sustainable development? In a nutshell, it is a "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," as defined in the Bruntland Commission's report Our Common Future. In other words, the concept is to combine economic growth with worldwide environmental protection and to fight poverty, while at the same time raising the standard of living in developing countries.

The UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 advanced this vague definition into a detailed action program called Agenda 21, which has been signed by 179 countries so far. But Agenda 21 is a nonbinding document, which may explain why--despite international recognition--very little has happened. Nevertheless, 10 years after the Rio conference, the 179 Agenda 21 signatories will discuss their efforts at next September's UN conference in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In Germany, it was the mid- to late 1990s before sustainable development became a political issue. It received an additional push after the last federal election in 1998, in which a conservative government was replaced by a Social Democratic Party (SPD)-Green coalition. And in September 2001, the National Sustainability Council ( Nachhaltigkeitsrat), established by the federal government, finally began operations to develop a national strategy for sustainability before the Johannesburg Summit. The council consists of 17 appointed members from public life, politics, research, and environmental and development organizations. And although the amount of time that elapsed between Germany's signing of Agenda 21 and its establishment of the Nachhaltigkeitsrat may seem excessive--particularly because most of the problems described by the WCED were known in the 1980s--Germany's efforts have actually been more intense than those of most other industrialized countries.

Although the concept of sustainability still lacks a clear definition, its introduction has led to a surprisingly large number of opportunities for science and research in Germany. One reason for this is the ministry's efforts to promote sustainability issues in research. "When I took office in 1998, I introduced five guidelines for future research policy in Germany," research minister Edelgard Bulmahn said during a recent convention. "One guideline was to include the concept of sustainable development into our policy."

During the convention, which was organized by the SPD's Bundestag faction, attendees were given insight into current research activities, and they were also asked to give their input about the potential for sustainability research in Germany. "Contacts with scientists, research institutions, and industry are very valuable for us," Bundestag member Ulla Burchardt (SPD) said when opening the convention. "We are looking for their advice to develop further perspectives of sustainability research."

A number of projects under the new funding priorities have already been initiated by the ministry. A new sustainability research Web portal now serves as a starting point for researchers interested in finding out more. The site also contains an overview of the current BMBF funding opportunities in this area, which include activities in fields such as sustainable consumption patterns, socioecological research, agriculture, and chemistry. Clearly, the sustainable-development funding cake offers a piece for just about every scientific discipline.

All this emphasis on research into sustainable development has a powerful impact on Germany's young scientists, too. One of the most important abilities you'll need if you want to apply yourself to sustainable development issues is the ability to work on an interdisciplinary level. However, not many German scientists receive interdisciplinary training. The ministry has recognized this deficit, and in an effort to fill the gap it will establish 10 new research groups specifically for PhD and postdoctoral researchers in January 2002. "Each research group will include five scientists from different disciplines working on a problem with truly interdisciplinary character," Angelika Willms-Herget of the BMBF explained at the convention. "The projects will be jointly located at a university and an additional independent research institution." Further information about these new research groups will be released in the next couple of weeks; Next Wave Germany will certainly report on it.

But universities have also recognized the leading role they can play in promoting sustainable development research. As early as 1998, the Cooperation Programme in Europe for Research on Nature and Industry through Coordinated University Studies ( COPERNICUS) was launched by CRE, the predecessor of the European Universities Association ( EUA). The organization's objective is to include committed European universities in the network so that they may share their knowledge and expertise in the field of sustainable development. Furthermore, EUA-COPERNICUS encourages partnerships between universities and industries.

And during the October EUA-COPERNICUS meeting at the University of Lüneburg, university leaders from all over Europe adopted the so-called Lüneburg Declaration, which calls for further establishment of sustainable development in research and science. Besides orienting Europe's higher education toward sustainability, university leaders also agreed to develop strategies and a toolkit to integrate it better into research activities. These activities to some extent foreshadow the European Union's Sixth R&D Framework Programme, in which sustainability will also play a major role.

All in all, young scientists should be aware that during the next decade, many new opportunities in sustainable development research are likely to arise. But it's not happening yet. Aside from a growing appreciation for the importance of this topic in the scientific community, the lack of public awareness continues to be an impediment. And so far, the number of jobs that have been created for sustainability researchers outside academia is minuscule.

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