Sustainable Earth approach is ahead of its time

25 June 2014

NWO directors Renée van Kessel and Frans Martens reflect on the sustainability research carried out since 2007, when Sustainable Earth became a separate theme within the NWO strategy and sustainability research was run centrally within NWO. Renée van Kessel-Hagesteijn is director of NWO Social Sciences and WOTRO and Frans Martens is director of Earth and Life Sciences. They worked together to expand sustainability research at NWO and have supported the development, implementation and completion of a wide range of sustainability programmes for many years. ‘If it were up to us, we would have continued this close partnership for many more years.’

Renée van Kessel-Hagesteijn (director of NWO Social Sciences and WOTRO) and Frans Martens (director of Earth and Life Sciences)

Of course NWO was already carrying out sustainability research before it was united under the flag of Sustainable Earth. Van Kessel and Martens did not need to dig too far back to remember the predecessors to research programmes such as Feedback in the Climate System, Sustainable Accessibility of the Randstad and the NWO/Novem Stimuleringsprogramma Energieonderzoek, and the names of active scientists and abbreviations of institute names and research programmes started to fly across the table. Separately-run programmes such as Climate Variability and Vulnerability, Adaptation and Mitigation fell under the former NWO theme System Earth (2002–2005). ‘But half-way through the previous decade, our ambition was to integrate the research areas,’ explained Renée van Kessel. ‘We also wanted to get natural and social scientists working together more. Furthermore, a global component was required, and this was achieved with the involvement of WOTRO, the NWO division for research in partnership with developing countries.’ The Sustainable Earth theme became part of the 2007–2010 NWO Strategy, with its own newsletter.

More integrated research

Frans Martens brought a pile of articles with him from the time (‘I’m tidying my room because we’re going to start flexiworking soon’), and quoted, ‘The drastic impact of the human race on the Earth is becoming increasingly visible and tangible almost everywhere: warm and cold, dry and wet, rich and poor.... That’s how we put it at the time.’ Van Kessel: ‘It was new and exciting that the theme committee was initially chaired by an economist – Jeroen van den Bergh – rather than an earth scientist or climatologist, for example. Later, programme committees were put together that ran the separate research programmes.’ Not only was there a large amount of money for Sustainable Earth (45 million euros over a five-year period), but the research focus also changed. Initially, sustainability research focused on finding pathways for ensuring that human activities did not harm the Earth. Later, the focus shifted more and more towards adapting to changes. Integrated research was required to investigate the causes and consequences and the relationship with the natural Earth system.

The house of science

Sustainable Earth research has added valuable bricks to the house of science, as Martens so poetically described it. ‘For example, I find the recent Call for Proposals on water that we completed with China symbolic. The problems that China now faces are in fact our old problems from the 1960s, but no-one in China has got the knowledge required. Scientists who have worked in Sustainable Earth are now going to take their knowledge to China, and this is state of the art knowledge. It is partly about spreading knowledge that already exists, but of course the situation in China is different from the situation in the Netherlands 50 years ago, so it is more than just knowledge dissemination.’ Van Kessel: ‘Yes, I also see examples of the cumulation of knowledge, such as in the successive NWO energy programmes.’ Martens: ‘And we must not underestimate the contribution of Dutch science to climate knowledge. NWO researchers were sometimes way ahead of the IPCC, a few examples can be seen in Feedback in the Climate System.’ Van Kessel also talked about the ‘demythologising’ function of science. ‘Around the year 2007, for example, people thought that the cultivation of jatropha for biofuels would have disastrous effects on people and the environment. However, research carried out in the Agriculture Beyond Food programme provided a more subtle picture.’ Martens: ‘Science influences public debate on the biobased economy, despite the fact that people sometimes say that science has lost its authority in this area. This is a different story in the climate debate, which is strongly polarised. The ‘accident’ in the IPCC report a few years ago may have had something to do with this. It is however also so that NWO climate research has produced some wonderful pearls, one example being the results of the polar research programme.’

Climate on ice

Despite the success of the Sustainable Earth programmes, the theme was ‘succeeded’ in 2011 by the three separate themes Water and Climate, Sustainable Energy and Connecting Sustainable Cities. Van Kessel: ‘The spatial aspects ended up in the social sciences, and water, climate and natural resources in the earth and life sciences. We also retained an energy transition programme within social sciences.’ Martens: ‘This meant that, from 2011, of all the research themes in NWO, several were sustainability-related.’ Van Kessel: ‘But then the government introduced its top sector policy. For a while, it looked like climate wasn’t a theme at all, but luckily it’s now back on the political agenda.’ Martens: ‘And rightly so, because of course climate is a theme that you can never ignore; without Earth there is no life. Even so, it seems that it is sometimes less of a priority for strategists.’

Lobby and labels

How exactly does NWO choose its research themes? Van Kessel: ‘The choice of themes is often influenced by lobbies from different scientific fields and different sectors. For example, the theme Connecting Sustainable Cities came about due to the efforts of spatial scientists.’ Martens: ‘The old FES programmes such as Knowledge for Climate and Leven met Water (Living with Water) needed a follow-up, and so we were discussing this with the former Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment.’ Van Kessel: ‘But lots of other ministries were also following developments, for example Economic Affairs, Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality and Transport, Public Works and Water Management – at the time all separate ministries. Each ministry had its own interests and pet topics. Unfortunately, we had to let go of our wonderful idea of everything under one roof – Sustainable Earth. Instead, we got several ‘narrower’ programmes.’ Martens: ‘In Earth and Life Sciences, the main focus in recent years has been on water research, because of the top sector policy. Now there are other priorities. Then, we were talking about the ecological footprint of a global population of six billion; now it’s about food security for nine billion. However, the fact is that the old sustainability subjects keep on resurfacing.’ Van Kessel: ‘At the most with a different label or classification.’ Martens: ‘There are of course many subjects relating to the functioning of the Earth of which we can never know enough.’ Van Kessel: ‘Also concerning the question as to what the best policy is, for example.’

No move to Mars

From 2015, sustainability research within NWO will be remoulded in different research themes. What are the most important focal areas for the coming years? Martens: ‘Resource scarcity, including water.’ Van Kessel: ‘Global food security.’ Martens: ‘Closing the loops! It sounds old-fashioned, but this is still what it’s all about. Just look at the microplastics in the oceans. The biomass discussion will also continue, and Agriculture Beyond Food will continue to be an important subject. And then there is the License to operate, for example relating to drilling in the Arctic for oil and gas. This is also an issue in the Netherlands: what are the risks to drinking water companies if we drill for shale gas? As well as the environmental aspect, the economic aspect can also be investigated.’ Van Kessel: ‘These days we talk about the circular economy – really just new terminology for the same thing. Energy will also continue to be an important theme.’ Martens: ‘These issues are all related to our continued existence on Earth. We really are not going to be moving to Mars, even though people all over the world are investing a lot of money in exploring the planet. We will always be interested in both the natural and social science aspects of these issues. However, there is less money now for climate issues than a few years ago. As far as sustainability research is concerned, it is important that we continue to make the link with the top sectors and international developments.’

Create inter-connections

What are Renée van Kessel’s and Frans Martens’ hopes and expectations for the coming years? Martens: ‘The main overall theme for now is, I believe, global change in relation to the limits to our planet’s liveability for billions of people. All kinds of changes taking place on Earth mean that we are faced with knowledge challenges.’ Van Kessel: ‘And because everything is connected to everything else, we are again going to have to forge links between the various scientific fields to be able to develop such knowledge cohesively. The tendency over the last few years to pull the themes apart a little will therefore eventually lead to more cooperation and integration. In fact, we were ahead of our time with Sustainable Earth. Creating inter-connections between knowledge on food and climate, for example, will now involve more energy and effort. It is also NWO policy to look further over the borders of different scientific fields in the coming period. It would also be good if sustainability were to remain an important theme in university funding.’

Source: NWO


Science area

Social Sciences Earth and Life Sciences


Theme: Sustainable Earth (2007-2010)