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Sustainable futures

Change of plan? What the climate emergency means for young researchers

The climate emergency is not going to be solved by one country, one industry, or one generation. In fact, thinking of the situation as being ‘solvable’ is in itself an inherently flawed outlook – the challenge to live sustainably on Planet Earth will persist far beyond 2050 and any of our lifetimes, and therefore requires a universal rethinking of how we, our children, and our grandchildren choose to live. However, one fact is clear; learning the changes needed to live sustainably depends on robust research to allow everyone in society, from everyday citizens to presidents and prime ministers, to make the right choices.

The shape of the research landscape of the future will therefore be crucial to determining how everyone’s lives need to adapt.

One group of people, among whom I count myself, are approaching a critical point in our careers where their decisions will craft the research environment that will either help or hinder the transition to sustainability. We are the scientists, engineers, writers, artists and analysts at the start of our research journey. Our mentors have paved the way in bringing climate research to the top of the agenda, but we must be ready to integrate sustainability into every aspect of our future careers.

This doesn’t mean all research should focus on climate change – far from it. Ensuring we can carry on pushing the frontiers of medicine, advancing the technology that connects us, and inspiring creativity is equally significant, but all this can be achieved alongside a transition to sustainability.

Take my research for example. I work on a different environmental issue – nitrogen pollution from agriculture. Using organic material, such as wood, my goal is to make a charcoal-like material called biochar that can be used to separate pollutants from soil. In a theoretical world where our use and processing of natural resources has no impact on the environment, we could just chop down trees from forests on the other side of the world and fly the wood over in fossil-fuel powered aircraft.

However, this research is being done in the real world, where we must embed principles of preventing net carbon emissions into our work. For me, this means considering how I can recycle biochar, minimising carbon emissions that would be generated through production and transport. And just like that, a research project focussed on a fairly specific area of soil pollution is simultaneously working to address climate concerns.

Young researchers, such as PhD students, have a unique opportunity. We can steer the direction of funded research projects with the support of experienced researchers, powered by the ambition and optimism to make a difference. While the impact of our work may not be particularly ground-breaking at this stage, we must make sure our approach to research complements, rather than contradicts, a new era of sustainability.

"We must make sure our approach to research complements, rather than contradicts, a new era of sustainability."
Max Gillingham

What else can we challenge? Do the benefits of attending international conferences outweigh the negative environmental impact of flying overseas? Could research grant proposals include a necessary discussion on sustainability? Can we push for carbon neutrality in our labs, as seen at the University of Nottingham’s GSK Carbon Neutral Laboratories for Sustainable Chemistry? Are our voices prominent enough in climate change seminars, conferences and summits? Our research careers will need to be open to changes to the status quo.

Finally, as the research leaders of the future, we need to be clear about where our research will lead. Climate change will be confronted by policy actions ranging from local government decisions to global diplomatic events, as we are seeing with COP26. Publishing a paper in a peer-reviewed journal is a great achievement – but this should not be seen as ‘job done’. Publication gives our work a seal of credibility which can ultimately help inform policy in a manner where policymakers can be confident about the quality of the evidence. We should be actively looking for opportunities to carry our work across the research-to-policy bridge, and projects such as Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement (CAPE) will be vitally important to support us in this endeavour.

Just as importantly, we need to assume that everyone in society is the potential audience for our research. You don’t have to look far these days to see the negative impact of misinformation - and who knows how much it will increase in years to come, considering the power of social media. Finding novel and exciting ways to communicate the scope of our research to the public is not just a box-ticking exercise. Rather, it is one of the most powerful tools we have in providing people with the evidence required to make informed decisions about their day-to-day activities, the policies they support and how they choose to spend their money.

Breaking down the barriers between academia and public engagement is a challenge, but it starts with communication. I doubt many people would be interested in my research on ‘pyrolysis of lignocellulosic biomass within a circular economy for ammonium sorption’ And why should they – it’s very unrelatable, surely? But how about: ‘cutting greenhouse gas emissions by recycling waste to clean up our soil and water’. Same project, different impact. Our research is worth hearing about, and sometimes this takes a bit of extra effort to reach all audiences. Let’s make public engagement an integral element of our research careers.

The careers of many researchers are just getting started. If the future of research is going to provide the necessary answers to sustainable living, while operating in a climate-conscious way, a career in research will be a challenging but exciting new adventure.

Max Gillingham

Max Gillingham is a third-year PhD student working with the Faculty of Engineering and the School of Biosciences.

Further reading

The greatest challenge of our time

Nature, 2020. How hot will Earth get by 2100?

Read more about the Carbon Neutral Laboratories at the University of Nottingham here

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