25 October 2015

Opinion: Focusing on excellence

Options Magazine Winter 2015: Professor Duncan Wingham is the Chief Executive of the National Environmental Research Council of the United Kingdom and Professor of Climate Physics at University College London. He will represent the UK NMO on the IIASA Council.



The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) now together make up the UK National Member Organization (NMO) for IIASA. Chosen because they provide the closest fit with IIASA science, these three will be advised by all seven Research Councils, the UK Learned Societies, Government Office for Science, and the wider academic community on pursuing their role on the IIASA Council. Just as importantly, they will bring the opportunities offered by renewing our IIASA subscription to the attention of the UK scientific community.

Together, the UK Research Councils invest around £3.5 billion (€4.1 billion) of public money every year across the full spectrum of academic disciplines from astronomy to the arts. In the UK, there is a long-standing tradition, known as the “Haldane Principle,” that decisions on scientific funding—such as whether to join IIASA—should be made by scientists rather than by government.

The Research Councils promote scientific excellence as well as demonstrating the societal benefit of the research to the wider UK. They also recognize the benefits of collaborative working and actively foster and strengthen international partnerships. For example, NERC, which I direct, has an important stake in the International Offshore Drilling Project and supports a broad range of shared international programs with, for example, Brazil, China, and India. It also contributes substantially to marine and polar research, where an internationally coherent approach is vital to meeting the challenges of science carried out across ocean and ice sheets.

Our decision to rejoin IIASA on behalf of the UK science community is a recognition of the scientific excellence that forms the bedrock of IIASA research, and of the very real contribution the Institute makes to informing policy. The UK has great strength in science of the environment, economics and social behavior, and applied mathematics and physics. The applied approach at IIASA provides a natural interface with an international community whose cooperation is essential to deal with global challenges. We can strengthen our science by joining IIASA, and in turn, the UK has much that it can contribute to IIASA.

There is a great deal the UK Research Councils can contribute in developing IIASA scientific strategy: notably, evaluating geographical and social “hotspots” of concern and pursuing a distinct science‑to‑policy thread. One aspect of taking a multi‑variate or systems approach to policy concerns is that the way governments are organized makes them sometimes unsuited to accommodating scientific advice. Better understanding—of what science might contribute and what policy might require—is in all our interests.

The Research Councils have a long experience of focusing on excellence that will provide a wider, longer‑term benefit. Bringing this tradition with us might also help the IIASA Council in its future deliberations.

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Last edited: 03 December 2015


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