Why sustainability progress rests on encouraging future talent

Tackling the climate crisis is complex.

It involves overcoming geopolitical and economic challenges. It requires understanding the impact on our ecosystems and communities. It means that we should encourage individuals to make small but meaningful changes to the way they live.

Scientists have a critical role to play in meeting these challenges through research and innovation and educating others about the factors influencing climate change.

However, we can’t expect groundbreaking research to happen by itself. We need to do more to encourage the next generation of scientists to turn their attention towards sustainability and finding solutions.

It’s why I’ve been involved in judging the VinFuture Prize, an awards ceremony dedicated to honouring the exceptional minds who are transforming lives around the world through research and innovation. The Prize represents two key steps we need to take to incentivise innovation and empower scientists.

First, we need to ensure that we’re properly celebrating scientific achievement, giving exceptional individuals the recognition they deserve. Secondly, we need to do more to ensure that science is as inclusive as it possibly can be and that we aren’t locking out talent from underrepresented groups.

Recognition

It is sometimes difficult to drive awareness of scientific breakthroughs. The Oscar-nominated comedy film, “Don’t Look Up”, recently touched on this in its portrayal of a society ignorant to two astronomers’ warnings of an approaching Armageddon.

While there were exaggerations for comedic effect, the film hits on a fundamental truth. In a world where popular culture dominates, it is sometimes difficult to get people to take notice of important scientific progress and discoveries.

Covid-19 could change this. Over the last two years, we’ve seen epidemiologists on our television screens every day. We’ve seen excitement at the development of vaccines and the scientists involved, such as Professor Sarah Gilbert at the University of Oxford, who has inspired millions of young women around the world with her ground-breaking work on the AstraZeneca jab.

Now the challenge is to continue the momentum. As we put the pandemic behind us, we can’t afford for public interest in science to wane. We need to try to ensure that other global problems, such as the climate crisis, receive the same kind of attention, so that the next generation continues to be inspired.

Awards ceremonies have a critical role to play here. They provide a unique platform for celebrating and rewarding the achievements of extraordinary individuals. In doing so, they establish role models who can energise others.

There is an important role for academic institutions, too, in making sure the wider world is aware of the work of scientists. Universities should seek to build on their relationships with the media and public, which have been strengthened considerably during the pandemic, and drive awareness of their role in tackling climate change.

Preventing talent from being locked out

Another important part of incentivising innovation is preventing talent from being locked out and unable to contribute.

For example, women remain underrepresented in science. They make up less than a quarter of the STEM workforce and, in the UK, just 16% of engineering graduates. And there wasn’t a single female winner in the Nobel Prize scientific categories last year.

This must be addressed because we simply can’t tackle global challenges without female talent.

Professor Zhenan Bao at Stanford University has pioneered the development of electronics with the sensing properties of human skin. Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim at KwaZulu-Natal University has been responsible for groundbreaking research on HIV prevention in South Africa. And Professor Katalin Kariko at the University of Pennsylvania has been pivotal to the Covid-19 response through her work on the Pfizer mRNA vaccine.

These examples all demonstrate the vital role that women have to play in driving scientific progress.

There are two steps we can take. The first is publicly recognising and celebrating female scientists through awards such as the VinFuture Special Prize for Women, rewarding innovation and helping to establish role models for young women.

The second is about schools and universities doing more to support female students who show interest and potential in STEM, ensuring they receive the right support and are exposed to opportunities such as mentoring programmes and university open days. Educational and research opportunities are vital across the whole world.

This can be addressed through more collaboration between universities across the globe and ensuring diverse representation at leading science conferences.

We should also ensure that there are more prizes dedicated specifically to innovators from the developing world so that they receive the recognition and praise that they deserve.

Driving sustainability progress

Our ability to understand climate change and reverse its effects depend ultimately on future generations of scientists.

We need to do everything we can to motivate and inspire them. That should involve giving appropriate recognition to exceptional scientific achievement and establishing role models, as well as removing barriers which are holding back scientists from underrepresented groups.

If we can invest more in incentivising sustainability innovation now, we’ll all benefit from groundbreaking research and discoveries in the future.

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