We need all sciences to tackle global change

In conjunction with the international summit and symposium organised by the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) in Paris, from 27 to 29 June, Thierry Damerval, President and CEO of the French National Research Agency (ANR), was interviewed by the HFSP about the major challenges of our century and the essential contribution of sciences in tackling them.

What are the most significant global challenges humanity faces today regarding sustainability, and why are they proving so hard to address?

Thierry Damerval: Climate change, erosion of biodiversity, emerging or re-emerging infectious diseases, food security, access to water, in a world with strong geopolitical tensions, growing inequalities and all the consequences that these different developments have on the lives of human beings. Scientists must mobilize across all disciplines and beyond national borders to provide the keys to understanding how to cope with global change and risks, as well as local pressures. From adaptation to resilience, we need to find the sustainable solutions required to meet these major challenges for our century.

These challenges are difficult to address because they are numerous, systemic, global and rapidly evolving, making all that new in the history of humanity. They require considerable scientific resources, international scientific programs and coordination to collect data in the field, organize and finance large-scale observation campaigns and invest in analyzing the data collected. The effects have to be directly perceptible in everyday life for society as a whole to become aware of them and have the will to act. This is clearly demonstrated by global warming which scientists have been warning about for decades.

If you had to explain the difference between science done within a discipline vs. systems-level science, how would you describe the difference?

T.D: I would say that disciplines are the building blocks of science, the foundations on which science is based. Each discipline evolves thanks to scientific work, its boundaries evolve, the barriers between disciplines are not watertight, they mutually enrich each other like in an ecosystem.  For systems-level research, you need very good experts in their own field, but you also need exchanges and dialogue between them to open up new avenues.

How can systems-level research shed new light on the global challenges humanity faces today, particularly with regard to sustainability?

T.D: I'd just like to mention two points:

  • The interfaces between biological sciences and digital sciences: artificial intelligence obviously raises many questions, and rightly so, and sometimes concerns, but AI can also make a tremendous contribution to characterising biodiversity, predicting its evolution, helping to control the impact of human beings, etc.
  • The importance of the humanities and social sciences, in association with other disciplines, but also in their own right. This is essential to tackle the challenges we face.

For the symposium, we have prepared a small booklet, available on the Internet, showing some of the projects we are supporting, on the biodiversity of coral reefs, food security and sustainable cities. They are all based on a high level of basic research and draw on very different disciplines.

Download the booklet “Sustainable development: the ANR takes action”

Why haven’t we done this kind of research before? Does it require new ways of thinking or working? Is it more expensive, or is it just very different?

T.D: I think that scientists have always had this kind of approach, researchers have always looked for new ways of thinking or working, it's inherent in the scientific process. Today we are seeing a much broader awareness of this issue, and institutions are taking it on board - I can see this in the exchanges and discussions we are having within Science Europe, for example. We are also seeing the rise of participatory science, involving other stakeholders in society not only in carrying out research, but also in designing it, disseminating the results and using them.

In many cases the IPCC reports talk about ‘tipping points’ and how these many accelerate global challenges in ways previously unimagined. How might systems-level research help us better anticipate the effects of exceeding key tipping points?

T.D: Taking action to prevent, anticipate or adapt to the tipping points highlighted by the IPCC goes well beyond the scope of research. It is true that research is making essential contributions in terms of knowledge, technological solutions and the ability to anticipate and adapt, but its deployment will only be effective in the current emergency situation if there is a convergence of political, economic and social actions at international level.

Why are the life sciences uniquely placed to make a contribution?

T.D: For a very simple reason: we often talk about "preserving or saving the planet", but in fact it's really about "preserving life". The life sciences therefore have a major role to play but, once again, we need all the sciences.

How can we move things forward?

T.D: At the level of research organization, and especially research funding organisations:

  • First, trusting and supporting young scientists
  • Second, dare to experiment new approaches with the way we support research
  • Third, exchanging, sharing and learning from each other.

What is HFSP’s role in this? Why is HFSP is a good position to do this?

T.D: Because the international dimension is fundamental, both in terms of cooperation in the field of research and in ensuring that the importance of research is considered at a political level.

What is your plan? What do you want to see come out of this?

T.D: First of all, I would like to stress the importance and the need to support a high level of basic research in all areas, and to give scientists a great deal of freedom, to support largely “curiosity-driven”, “investigator-driven”, alongside, directed or mission-oriented programmes. The two approaches are necessary, but they must not be compartmentalised. There must be interaction between the two, and a researcher or a laboratory must be able to move from one to the other. At ANR, a large majority of the projects we gund are investigator driven project, either disciplinary or trans-disciplinary, focussing on green transition, digital transition, one heatlh, transformation of our societies. We see that among these investigator-driven projects, more than two third address Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Find out more:

Download the Booklet: Projects “Sustainable development: the ANR takes action”

Supporting research for sustainable development

The HFSP website

“We need to address climate change from a systemic point of view”. Interview with Pavel Kabat, Secretary General of the HFSP organization

Last updated on 20 July 2023
Sign up for the latest news:
Subscribe to our newsletter