A sustainable future is one in which energy production, resource use, and economic progress are optimally managed to ensure the long-term survival of the human species. Achieving this goal will only be possible through a dramatic rethinking of many aspects of society and its infrastructure, and will require unprecedented levels of international collaboration and cooperation. There can be little doubt that science will play the starring role in this transformation, creating profound opportunities for chemists. A recent U.S. Department of Energy report1 outlining priority areas for sustainability research highlighted the importance of chemistry. Carbon sequestration, nanoscale catalysts, efficient battery materials, and solar energy harvesting are cited as examples of how chemistry-based research can lead to breakthrough technologies with the potential for far-reaching impact.2
Wide implementation of these and other technologies will take time, and the road to a sustainable future is sure to be a long one. Negotiating this path will require thinking on a timescale of decades, as well as across international borders. From this perspective, it is essential to include young scientists from diverse backgrounds in the conversation about sustainability, as they will be the stewards of change over the coming decades. In 30 years, today’s promising 20-something post-doc may well be in a key advisory role, shaping government policy and directing the course of scientific research. In 30 years, the scientific powerhouses of Europe, America, and Japan will be joined by countries like Thailand, Brazil, and South Africa as economies improve and more resources are invested into research. Bringing early career researchers to the table in discussions surrounding allocation of science funding, climate change, and energy policy is clearly an important part of promoting long-term thinking.
And yet, the plight of the young scientist is often precarious at best. A recent report produced jointly for the UK’s Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry highlighted the pressures often felt by early career chemists.3 Faced with increased competition for jobs, research grants, and the overwhelming demand to publish or perish, most young chemists find themselves putting in long, hard hours in the lab or the classroom, leaving little time to consider science policy and social issues. Moreover, many tenure decisions at universities reflect grant income and publications with no reward for becoming involved in wide-ranging policy initiatives. Even if an early career chemist is interested in such things (and many are), there are very few forums in which to voice their thoughts, especially on an international level. Some national scientific institutions such as the UK’s Royal Society and Germany’s National Academy of Sciences have established young scientist programs, and while these are certainly helpful their activities are mainly limited to the national level and exist only in developed countries with long traditions of scientific research.
A group of young scientists selected by their national academies to attend a 2008 World Economic Forum Meeting in China first realized the need for an organization that could act as an advocate for early career researchers. If businesses and political organizations could form globe-spanning networks, then why shouldn’t young scientists? The idea caught the attention of senior figures in science—Howard Alper (the co-chair of the IAP, the global network of science academies) and Bruce Alberts (editor in chief of Science magazine)—who provided early guidance. With financial support from the Volkswagen foundation, the Global Young Academy (GYA) was launched in 2010. With 172 members from 54 countries, the GYA is the first truly international network of early career researchers in evidence-based disciplines, committed to improving both the state of science and enriching the science-society interface.
As the global voice for young scientists, the GYA sees itself fulfilling several ambitious roles. Chief among these is facilitating international dialogues on key scientific issues (such as sustainability) between disciplines and generations and, in particular, between the developing and developed world. As an outward looking organization, the GYA also places an emphasis on communication of the value of science to the public, and on promoting science as a career of choice to young people. The highly international character of the GYA ensures a wide perspective on these issues, helping to bridge the gap between science in the developing and developed world.
|. . . the GYA sees itself fulfilling several ambitious roles.
Membership to the organization is selective and competitive, with the main criteria being excellence in research and an enthusiasm for engaging with science as a vehicle for social change. The GYA looks for young researchers who are not only current or future leaders in their field of study, but who are looking to make a wide impact through their work and passion for science. Applications are considered from those who are in the early stages of an independent research career in an evidence-based discipline, typically between 5 and 10 years from the completion of a Ph.D. or other advanced degree. The membership is selected to ensure representation across disciplines and continents. Current GYA members include not only those working in chemistry, but in physics, biology, engineering, and related humanities fields, such as the history and philosophy of science and economics. Roughly equal weighting is given between those in developing and developed countries, with one co-chair selected from each. The continued renewal of the organization is ensured by a turnover of its members, with initial membership limited to two years with the possibility of renewing for another two.
Although barely two years old, the GYA has already made impressive progress towards its core goals through a combination of workshops, programs, and annual meetings. At the General Assembly held 20–23 May 2012 in Johannesburg, South Africa, the quality and scope of the discussions highlighted how the organization has become a key forum for the exchange of ideas among young scientists. Amid a palpable air of enthusiasm, delegates broke off into working groups themed around a particular project or area of science policy. Moving through the lobby of the conference venue it was possible to overhear a Scottish astrophysicist and an Italian philosopher arguing over the practicalities of open access scientific publishing, or an Egyptian biochemist making an impassioned plea for more resources to support young woman in science at key points in their career. A heated conversation surrounding the migration of some of the developing world’s best and brightest scientists to faculty positions in the developed countries demonstrated the often complex and multifaceted nature of issues facing young researchers.
Informed debates like these are at the heart of the GYA. From the small working groups emerge policy statements and reports that seek to capture young researcher’s viewpoints on key issues from a multidisciplinary and international perspective, in a way that has not previously been possible. An excellent example of this is the Sandton Declaration on Sustainability that was the major outcome of the South Africa general assembly, themed around the issue of sustainability and timed to coincide with the Rio+20 meeting. The Sandton statement (see below) suggests scientists share a responsibility for ensuring a sustainable future and outlines a vision for how they might realize this goal. In addition to being knowledge creators, scientists must be able to mobilize this knowledge and ensure it is used effectively. The key is engagement at all levels of the decision-making process. Scientists need to do a better job at creating dialogue with industry, governments, funding agencies, and the general public. As a blueprint for the future, how appropriate that this came from the collective effort of early career researchers.
While it is tempting to dismiss these sorts of statements as wishful thinking unlikely to have any broad impact, the GYA has increasingly managed to have its voice heard at the highest levels of public discourse. Op-ed pieces from GYA members on issues discussed by its membership have found their way into top scientific journals like Nature4 and Science.5 GYA members have been invited to participate in high-level international forums such as the World Economic Forum and the InterAcademy Panel (IAP), a global network consisting of 115 national science academies. A recent major policy document authored by the IAP and aimed at political leaders on global population and consumption was authored with input from GYA members. At a recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Vancouver in February 2012, members of the GYA hosted a State of Young Scientists forum, providing a high-profile forum for early career researchers to engage with leaders in the scientific arena. Taken together, these activities suggest there is a growing willingness to listen to the viewpoints of young scientists, and that the GYA is well poised to provide this perspective.
Getting involved with these sorts of activities at an early stage in a scientist’s research career can have a transformative effect on one’s outlook, motivating a young scientist to look beyond the lab bench and think critically about wider issues in science. Membership in the GYA provides experience in crafting science policy that can help facilitate engagement with other international science bodies. It is this sort of engagement by young scientists in high-level discussions that the GYA wishes to promote and encourage.
Nitsara Karoonuthaisiri, a chemical engineer based in Thailand and a founding member of the GYA, states that ”membership in the GYA has been a blessing, working with a diverse group of young scientists on issues of international significance has made me realize the value of science-societal dialogues.” As important as it is to remind governments and large organizations that the voice of young scientists should be heard, it is perhaps even more vital to remind young scientists that they have a voice; and to empower them to participate in discussions. This is especially important in the sustainability debate. If the GYA can channel the passion and enthusiasm of its membership into action, then there is cause for optimism that the goals of the Sandton Declaration will be met.
- New Science for a Secure and Sustainable Energy Future, Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee, December 2008. [Full report at http://science.energy.gov/~/media/bes/pdf/reports/files/nsssef_rpt.pdf
- J. Garcia-Martinez, The Chemical Element: Chemistry´s Contributions to Our Global Future, Wiley, 2011, ISBN 978-3-527-32880-2; thechemicalelement.com)
- Mapping the Future: Survey of Chemistry and Physics Postdoctoral Researchers’ Experiences and Career Intentions, Sean McWhinnie, March 2011. [http://www.iop.org/publications/iop/2011/page_50579.html]
- Rees Kassen, Nature 480:153, 2011 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/480153a)
- Tilman Brück et al, Science 328: 17, 2010 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1185745)