Young scientists debate sustainability research

An interdisciplinary symposium on sustainability research involving young academics from South Africa, Germany and several other countries was held in Berlin in late March. It was the latest event of the Global Young Academy of up-and-coming researchers.

The symposium was part of the German-South African Year of Science, and scientists at the meeting, who are members of the German and South African young academies as well as the Global Young Academy, discussed a wide range of issues relating to ecological novelty.

“Socio-ecological Novelty – Frontiers in Sustainability Research” centred on the concept of ecological novelty – new ecosystems created by humans that have become irreversible, are having novel effects and demand attention from researchers and politicians.

Caradee Wright, an environmental health specialist at South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and co-chair of the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS), stressed the importance of integrating the issue of sustainability into people’s basic needs, but also pointed to the difficulty of getting such a task onto the political agenda.

Giving young scientists a voice and providing them with a platform to influence policy decisions is a key objective of SAYAS, which was launched in 2011.

Silja Klepp, a sustainability researcher at Germany’s University of Bremen, gave a vivid account of the future that the island republic of Kuribati is facing given rising ocean levels, demonstrating the wide range of issues ecological changes trigger.

Klepp, a member of Junge Akademie – German Young Academy – explained that it also aimed to engage with politics and maintained that sustainability could only be achieved if fair solutions were worked out for people at both the global and local levels.

The Junge Akademie was founded in 2000 as a joint project of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, based in Halle.

The symposium addressed a variety of fields relating to ecological novelty.

Areas ranged from agriculture, with John Muyonga of Uganda’s Makarere University focusing on the prospects of obtaining valuable oils from fish waste, to medical research, with Philimon Gona describing the alarming increase in hypertension in South Africa, to urban development, with Friedrich von Borries of Hamburg’s University of Fine Arts presenting a concept for green areas in the German city of Frankfurt am Main.

“We wanted to take a fresh look at ecological, political and social drivers of change and at how to ensure resilience,” said South Africa’s Bernard Slippers, co-chair of the Global Young Academy, in a panel debate closing the event.

“Of course, there aren’t any blanket rules that would cover everything and we have to bear differences in mind between the North and the South. What is applicable in Frankfurt, in a country with a decreasing population, would not necessarily suit places in the South.”

Bridging the gap between North and South is a focal area of Global Young Academy activities. The organisation was founded in 2010 following debates among young scientists at World Economic Forum meetings in Davos, Switzerland, in 2009 and 2010.

Daya Reddy, president of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), noted that input by young academics provided “a fitting end to the German-South African Year of Science”.

The year was meant as a strategic tool to focus on South Africa’s science and technology initiatives and highlight cooperation between the two countries. It goes back to a science and technology agreement that Germany and South Africa signed in 1996.

Jörg Hacker, president of Leopoldina, explained that the academy’s debates on sustainability and science and on fairness in science and engineering contributed to the development of the Berlin event.

* “Socio-ecological Novelty – Frontiers in Sustainability Research” was a joint effort by ASSAf, Leopoldina, the Global Young Academy, SAYAS and the Junge Akademie. Funding was provided by Germany’s Ministry of Education and Research and the German Research Foundation.