Now could be a smart time to move into environmental research

Against a backdrop of increased funding and publishing output, aligning yourself with the green economy early could be a shrewd move, says Tim Smith

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Tim Smith's avatar
IOP Publishing
12 Nov 2021
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Now could be a good time to move into environmental research in universities

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If you think the world is changing fast, buckle your seatbelt. An estimated 85 per cent of jobs that will be needed in 30 years don’t yet exist. Technologies are developing at eye-watering pace, and the skills and tools we need to keep up are changing rapidly, too.

Academic research is at the forefront of such discovery and development and, according to the UNESCO Science Report, “most countries, regardless of their level of income, now see research and innovation as key to fostering sustainable economic growth and furthering their development”.

There is a strong correlation between level of scientific research and standard of living. It’s not hard to see why − the impact of climate change is already being felt, with increasing extreme weather events and hottest years on record. Working on discoveries that support the transition to a greener economy will not only benefit society but also boost career opportunities.

There’s a growing number of scientists who work tirelessly to assess, predict and document the damage caused by global warming. Green skills are essential to the transition towards a more sustainable society, and the International Labour Organisation estimates that 24 million jobs worldwide could be created by the green economy by 2030. Furthermore, the World Economic Forum states that environmental protection experts in sectors such as transport are set to become the most sought-after professionals in the coming years.

Against this backdrop, aligning yourself with the green economy could be a shrewd move. There’s going to be more and more growth in this space. We see this trend reflected in the growth of academic research linked to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Published research output related to the SDGs has increased at an average annual rate of 17 per cent over the past five years, making it one of the biggest growth areas in academic publishing. To put this into context, computer science research has grown by 13.3 per cent in the same time and the physical sciences by 5.1 per cent.

Last year, at IOP Publishing, where I work, the most cited environmental science article in our environmental research series relating to one of the SDGs has had more than 120 citations to date. Not bad, compared with the five citations research articles get on average.

To support this phenomenal growth, we have recently announced the launch of three additional new environmental journals that extend the programme to match the SDGs. The whole series is open access, and the new journals bring together academia, industry and policymakers and offer an outlet for interdisciplinary research. After all, it’s often when two or more academic traditions collide that the magic happens. For example, when biologists used quantum physics to explain how the robin, a bird commonly found in UK gardens, uses the Earth’s magnetic field to migrate.

Interdisciplinary research allows for the synthesis of ideas and the amalgamation of individual differences. For instance, a whole new language is being deployed to scale up research through machine learning and AI, leading to new capabilities in understanding and modelling complex physical systems such as the climate, ecosystems and disease. Looking beyond the borders of traditional disciplines may well be the best way to help us shape new job opportunities, explore new inventions and adapt to the changing research landscape.

Major funding agencies such as UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) are also on board. In the past five years, its £1.5 billion Global Challenges Research Fund has supported challenge-led and interdisciplinary research, including the participation of researchers who may not previously have considered the applicability of their work to development issues.

Also, according to Dimensions, the world’s largest linked research information dataset, the average funding of research output from the top five global funders relating to environmental science and the SDGs has grown by 15.7 per cent in the past five years.

The support of major funding programmes such as these looks set to drive continued growth and opportunities for researchers who direct their efforts towards the SDGs.

However, where there are new ways of working, there are always challenges to overcome. For a long time, researchers felt discouraged to submit their work as an interdisciplinary project due to the perception that these were seen as secondary to discipline-specific projects. Fortunately, that is set to change with this year’s renewed research excellence framework (REF) 2021.

In evaluating research impact, REF 2021 is set to give equal weight to interdisciplinary working for the first time. According to the new guidance, “all types of research and all forms of research output shall be assessed on a fair and equal basis, including interdisciplinary and collaborative research”.

Finally, it appears, academics conducting research in this field should start to get the recognition they deserve and be awarded accordingly. We certainly expect a growing number of interdisciplinary collaborations submitted for funding and assessment in the coming years.

Bringing the science community together is also the aim of this month’s inaugural virtual conference, Environmental Research 2021, which is free to attend. Hopefully, the growing number of conferences and increased financial support signpost the surge in interest and opportunities for researchers working towards a greener and more sustainable future.

The importance of interdisciplinary science in tackling the challenges for humanity relating to the climate, biodiversity, global health and long-term sustainability is unquestionable. Bringing together the greatest minds in science across different disciplines will be most valuable for generations to come.

Tim Smith is associate director of IOP Publishing in the UK.


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