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Scientific Research and a Sustainable Planet

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My day job at Columbia University is working for Jeff Sachs as the Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Earth Institute. The largest unit of the Institute is the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, one of the premier environmental science research organizations in the world. Bärbel Hönisch, a paleoceanographer at the Observatory and Assistant Professor in our Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, was the lead author of a recent article in the journal Science that maintained that the acidification of the ocean from human-caused carbon emissions is faster than it has ever been. According to Hönisch: "...if industrial carbon emissions continue at the current pace, we may lose organisms we care about -- coral reefs, oysters, salmon."

The importance of earth science and earth observation is growing as our population grows. When I was a teenager in the late 1960s, there were 3 billion people on the planet; today there are over 7 billion. With a global population that is projected to reach 10 billion by 2050, the crucial question emerges -- how do we extract our needs from the planet without destroying it? In an increasingly crowded planet, the scale of production of everything has grown and with it we see an increased draw on the earth's resources. If we do not develop an economic system less dependent on the one-time use of natural resources, then it is inevitable that energy, water, food and all sorts of critical raw materials will become more and more expensive. The development of a sustainable, renewable resource-based economy has become a necessity.

Over the past few years I have been working to integrate what we know about the planet's environment into the field of organizational management. Along with a number of other scholars we are beginning create the field of sustainability management. As I've written before, the Earth Institute here at Columbia is collaborating with the School of Continuing Education and the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) to create masters programs in this important emerging field. We have a Masters in Sustainability Management in Continuing Education, an intensive one-year Masters of Environmental Science and Policy in SIPA, and we are about to launch a new concentration in our Executive MPA Program to enable senior managers to focus on Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management. We have also launched a new undergraduate major in Sustainable Development. Why are we doing this?

We are doing this because the leaders and CEOs of the 21st century need to understand basic environmental processes in order to be effective managers. What we have started to call the "physical dimensions of sustainability" create controllable costs in every organizational setting; in non-profit organizations, small businesses, multi-national corporations, and government agencies. Decision makers must have insight into the natural resources and inputs that sustain their organization or business. They need to know the costs and uses of energy, water and raw materials needed in their operations. They must also understand the impact of their production on the natural environment. Ask BP, after the Gulf of Mexico, or GE, after their experience with PCBs in the Hudson, if they think that is important knowledge for management to have. An education that includes basic science allows graduates of management and public policy programs to serve as managers and policymakers with the environmental and earth science information that is increasingly necessary to evaluate complex information and make informed decisions.

But we need to do much more. We need to provide more funding of earth systems science. The National Science Foundation funded the work of Dr. Hönisch noted above. She and her colleagues make good use of these funds to increase our understanding of this planet. Still, our ignorance of the most fundamental earth processes is staggering. There is a great deal going on here on earth that requires more observation and analysis than we have completed to date. The scientists at our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory are among the world's top environmental scientists. Despite their excellence, they must spend increasing numbers of precious hours away from their laboratory and field-based research projects engaged in drafting numerous research proposals required to keep their teams funded. The competition for science research funding is getting more intense all the time. While resource scarcity can require important discipline and can help ensure efficiency, too much funding scarcity can endanger the quality and creativity of science.

Sustainability and political stability requires that we create a high throughput economy that lifts billions out of poverty and creates a worldwide middle class. In the United States and other wealthy nations, we expect to enjoy the benefits of advanced technologies increased living standards. Our kids want their smart phones and we want those iPads. In order to grow the global economy in the long-term, we need to manage the planet better. Without a healthy and productive ecosystem, wealth is impossible; environmental protection is a prerequisite to wealth. The stress on our environment has become apparent to those even in the wealthiest nations. Many of the earth's resources are fixed and finite, and environmental and earth system processes are complex and are not yet completely or widely understood. Scientific research is required to continue to advance our knowledge of these systems so that we can ensure our ability to sustainably utilize them in the long-run.

Earth observation is not a luxury item, but a necessity. If our oceans are losing their ability to sustain important life forms, we should keep in mind that we humans are life forms too. If the oceans lose their productive capacity, we should be trying to figure out -- what comes next? We are biological creatures that require air, water and food to survive. We get that stuff from the earth and its atmosphere. It seems to me that no other type of science could possibly be more vital than the science of earth observation.

I am deeply concerned about the prospect that the overall stress on the federal budget will result in reductions in federal science funding. About a year ago, I wrote about this issue and the past year has done nothing to reduce my worries. This is not a conservative or liberal issue. In fact, in my piece last February I quoted conservative columnist George Will who advocated that we "rev the scientific engine." Will understands the connection between basic scientific research and the wealth of this nation. Anyone who analyzes the sources of economic growth in the modern world understands its connection to science and new technology. While we need to study science to develop new technology, we also need science to ensure that the new technologies we develop do not destroy the basic resources we depend on. Science creates wealth and problems, and only science can solve these problems and allow us to maintain wealth and the health of our species.

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