Research and university communities demand climate action

Ahead of COP27 (the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference), leading European research and university organisations have joined forces to renew the call for collective, common global efforts for climate action, launched last year.

They are proposing a systemic approach where universities, national research performing organisations and research funding organisations work together, involving policy-makers, the business sector and non-governmental organisations, in Europe and globally.

The call was made by the European association of leading universities of science and technology (CESAER), the European University Association (EUA), the International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN), Science Europe, the Network of Universities from the Capitals of Europe (UNICA) and the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, the city that hosted COP26.

They gathered on Thursday 3 November for a symposium on “Interdisciplinarity for the Net-Zero Transition”, a lead-up event to COP27, to mobilise their expertise and call for cooperation in urgent climate actions.

In 2021 CESAER, ISCN, Science Europe and the University of Strathclyde launched a Call to Action for research performing and funding organisations and universities regarding the ‘net-zero transition’.

This year the EUA and UNICA joined the four partners in co-organising the COP27 lead-up symposium focused on “interdisciplinarity”, and all six organisations presented their commitment for climate action, shared good practice and called for the mobilisation of research and higher education communities.

In a joint statement they said universities and research performing and funding organisations are key contributors to the global net-zero transition effort in reducing their energy consumption and, most importantly, providing new insights into challenges, as well as solutions, including ‘green’ technologies and societal innovations.

They said the climate crisis has multiple causes, but only collective efforts and action, embedding whole-system approaches will address and mitigate it effectively.

Innovative and scientifically rigorous methods for estimating and mitigating increases in greenhouse gas and harmful emissions are needed to enable a more effective, robust and concentrated effort with resources being enabled for long-term investments to expedite the net-zero transition, they argued.

“With our commitment for the net-zero transition, together with partners from the research and university systems, we want to mobilise policy-makers and societal stakeholders in a collective effort for the most pressing challenge of our time: climate change,” declared Professor Rik Van de Walle, president of CESAER.

“European universities are committed to responding to societal concerns about the climate crisis, including by tailoring our educational offerings to ensure maximum impact through our graduates,” declared Michael Murphy, president of EUA.

“The efforts and reforms we are seeing on the part of universities are informed by the demands of our students and engagement with our local communities, two drivers that are just as meaningful for climate action as regulations or targets for specific industries.”

Professor Gisou van der Goot, president of ISCN, said: “The net-zero transition is needed now, more than ever. The energy crisis, the war in Ukraine, and the lingering effects of COVID are all striking and dramatic revelations of the interconnectedness of our world, of which climate and sustainability are the ultimate examples.

“We are therefore committed to promoting international collaboration and working to build bridges between our institutions, to deepen our impact and accelerate our efforts toward realising the net-zero transition.”

Angelika Kalt, vice-president of Science Europe, said: “Interdisciplinary research is not a new concept: we know we need to further mobilise all disciplines and organisations to tackle the climate crisis. We have just published a survey report with the experiences of Science Europe members. We need to scale up these efforts and work together involving all disciplines, research partners and societal stakeholders.”

Professor Luciano Saso, president of UNICA, said UNICA universities, because they are located in capital cities, have the ability and responsibility to influence European and government policies on the crucial challenges affecting societies and the planet.

“We are determined to build on this specificity by encouraging our members to harness their academic research, innovative grit and heterogeneous communities to impact policies in the direction of a green transition. We are committed to reach a sustainable future.”

Professor Sir Jim McDonald, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, United Kingdom, said: “We share a vision of a world where research and education communities work together to solve urgent global challenges and believe that research and education will underpin a sustainable relationship between the use and preservation of natural resources, and human activity.”

Shift to challenge-oriented research

Science Europe’s survey report, Interdisciplinary Research for the Green and Digital Transition – written by Nicola Francesco Dotti (Science Europe) and Malin Mobjork (Formas) and edited by Lidia Borrell-Damian (Science Europe) – found that Science Europe member organisations are carrying out interdisciplinary research addressing climate change and digitalisation as part of a broader shift towards challenge-oriented research and they perceive interdisciplinary research as supporting the evolution of science disciplinary boundaries.

They also see interdisciplinary research as an opportunity to involve societal stakeholders in the different phases of the research cycle, from designing research funding calls to disseminating findings.

However, respondents recognised that a continuing problem is that researcher careers are still discipline-based, which hampers research performing organisations from pursuing interdisciplinary research activities.

The report said urgent actions are needed to address the climate crisis and in the case of climate change and biodiversity research, interdisciplinary research is “already delivering essential benefits”.

Kalt said in the introduction of the report: “Interdisciplinary research constitutes an experimental approach to developing new forms of high-quality scientific research.”

She said it is time to foster more collaboration and interdisciplinary approaches in science. The climate crisis and digitalisation challenges are urgent and require science to tackle them.

“Research organisations are called to scale up these activities to address societal challenges more effectively and rapidly,” she said.