Science and international partnership are key to promoting a healthier planet, says US Assistant Secretary of State Dr Kerri-Ann Jones, who was in Dublin this week for the UCD Earth Gathering at University College Dublin.
When you are dealing with global issues, it helps to have a common language. Global issues don’t get any bigger than protecting the environment, and science can provide a common language between countries and cultures and between scientists and policy-makers.
That was a key message from Dr Kerri-Ann Jones, Assistant Secretary of the US Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, who yesterday delivered a keynote address at the UCD Earth Gathering.
The self-professed "scientist diplomat" spoke about the key relationship we all share – our relationship with with the environment – and the role of science in understanding and addressing environmental challenges.
"We recognise that the Earth’s natural resources are finite," said Jones. "And understanding how to balance our energy and economic needs with good environmental stewardship is vital, it is probably the question of our lifetime."
During her talk, Jones touched on several major issues – the need for objective data, trust, partnership, science education and how science can act as a common language. "Science and sustainability are linked – it has fundamental roles to provide the data we need to inform policy choices," she said. "Building trust is important and science plays a very important role in that."
International partnership to promote a healthier planet is a key focus of Jones’ brief. "We each have to look at our own backyards at what we are doing but we also have to work together internationally, because one environment affects another but also because research is a global community," she said.
One of the many hats she wears is as US co-chair of the US-Ireland R&D Partnership, an initiative that supports tripartite collaboration between researchers in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the US.
Launched in 2006, to date it has supported 14 projects to the tune of US$29m (around €21.6m), including research on alternative materials to silicon in electronics, on how to measure ocean gases and on reducing the cost of offshore wind energy.
Jones has met several of the researchers on this and previous visits to Ireland. "I have been excited about it and meeting the scientists and the students has been very positive," she told Siliconrepublic.com.
Ireland could further enrich research collaborations by proactively engaging the diaspora of Irish scientists who now work overseas, added Jones. She welcomes movements such as The Wild Geese Network of Irish Scientists and NODES, but she also thinks the diaspora resource is there to be further tapped.
"I see this [Earth Gathering] as a part of that," she said. "And this discussion about the Earth is a very good way to look at this, because we all share the Earth and we all have to think about what can we do to improve conditions – it is a very pragmatic approach and it’s where we have to be."
Embrace complexity and curiosity
The issues around environmental change and protection are complex, but we need to look at the bigger picture rather than oversimplifying, said Jones. "There is no ‘one thing’ to do here," she said. "But I do I think how we change our energy footprint is huge, and it is connected in so many ways to our economic growth."
She is also passionate about the need to "do better" in science education. "The citizenry of every country needs a level of science awareness now that we could not have imagined 50 years ago," she said. "And we need to deal with things such as uncertainty and risk assessment … if science just becomes a place for advocacy then science loses its credibility."
She believes that inquiry- and curiosity-based teaching in schools can form part of the solution. "It’s about the ability to not squash people’s curiosity and to listen and let them make mistakes and discover," she told Siliconrepublic.com. "We also need to connect it to relevant problems – sometimes you think science is over here and way on the other side of the room is an actual problem, and we are not really taught how to connect them."
And she wants to see young people become engaged with environmental issues. "I encourage people to get into it and work to their strengths: if you are an excellent lab scientist then get the best training, if you have the skills to communicate do journalism and if you have the skills to work on policy and negotiate then do that," she says. "And recognise that it’s a big picture, it is hard, but everybody has a little piece to play."