Research agendas are often lagging behind the current needs of society. National environmental policies are being made while the relevant science is only half complete. While research grant agencies attempt to fund novel, innovative and applicable science, they try to guess what the future research needs are.
Horizon scanning and research prioritization exercises help to bring environmental and social isssues of tomorrow and of 2050 onto the research agenda of today. They identify future information needs, so that scientists can develop the necessary knowledge and tools, and have them ready at the critical policy window. Thanks to Bill Sutherland and Lynn Dicks, I have been involved in 4 of these exercies during my PhD, as a facilitator and co-ordinator.
I was the lead facilitator for the first SCAR Antarctic and Southern Ocean Science Horizon Scan, held in New Zealand in 2014. This involved over 80 experts from all disciplines of polar research: ecologists, glaciologists, meterologists, climatologists, oceanographers, astrophysicists, historians, etc., debating over which research questions were of top priority for Antarctica in the next 20 years. What an experience! Using 3 rounds of discussion and voting, we selected a list of 80 questions that, if answered, will significantly contribute to scientific understanding at the Southern Pole.
My favourite questions were in the section of ‘Human presence in Antarctica’:
- How can natural and human-induced environmental changes be distinguished, and how will this knowledge affect Antarctic governance?
- What will be the impacts of large-scale, direct human modification of the Antarctic environment?
- How will external pressures and changes in the geopolitical configurations of power affect Antarctic governance and science?
- How will the use of Antarctica for peaceful purposes and science be maintained as barriers to access change?
- How will regulatory mechanisms evolve to keep pace with Antarctic tourism?
- What is the current and potential value of Antarctic ecosystem services?
I’ve also helped with workshops that identified top priority questions for:
- fundamental ecology
- wild insect pollinator management and conservation
- global conservation issues in 2014