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Multidisciplinary Environmental Research: The Peer Challenge

Submitted by on 06 Oct 2011 – 12:58

Partnership for European Environmental ResearchMarkku Puupponen, General Secretary, PEER and Representatives of the PEER Centres

The Partnership for European Environmental Research (PEER, was founded in 2001 and is now formed by seven of the largest European environmental research institutions: Alterra – Wageningen UR (the Netherlands), Cemagref (France), Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (United Kingdom), Finnish Environment Institute – SYKE (Finland), Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ (Germany), European Commission – Joint Research Centre – Institute for Environment and Sustainability, and Danish Centre for Environment and Energy – Aarhus University (Denmark). The PEER members together employ 5,000 persons and have a long-standing experience in delivering strategic environmental research for national governments, research councils and other central or regional public organisations, as well as for the European Commission and international bodies. Similarly, research is also carried out in public-private partnerships, or directly commissioned by private companies and NGOs.

Research in the PEER centres is based on the conviction that grand societal challenges, such as natural resource management and climate change, should be the focus of European environmental research. This is reflected in the Europe 2020 targets and initiatives that emphasize changing climate, energy, resources efficiency and developing industrial policy. To date, research may have successfully targeted specific problems, but has not yet been able to provide adequate solutions to deal with the interdependencies and feedbacks between the different challenges, or the negative side effects of implementing partial solutions in disconnected policy areas. What is needed is a focus on the links between the grand challenges and the development of approaches and methods for dealing with and adapting to risks and uncertainties. A holistic understanding of the interrelations between anthropogenic activities and the environment is an essential pre-requisite for introducing social and technological innovations.

During the Danish presidency, an important issue for PEER will be the negotiations on a new 8th Framework for Research. There is no doubt that the EU will need high level strategic environmental research in order to respond to the grand societal challenges. It implies close communication between policy and research, without detracting from independent and critical underlying basic research. It requires consideration of appropriate models of financing and the criteria for rating research to be funded. The choices will contribute to the further development of the European Research Area, and they should maintain its diversity, which is one of its strengths.

PEER has developed project work through its joint research initiatives: experiments to develop institutional joint programming across national borders at the level of research institutes. The PEER Climate Change Initiative started late 2007 with a “Comparative Analysis of European national adaptation strategies” and a study on “Climate Policy Integration, Coherence and Governance”. The reports were well received by the EC during a policy brief in Brussels in June 2009. The researchers involved were very positive about the opportunity to experiment with innovative combinations of disciplines, research cultures and administrative systems.

During the Danish Presidency  the first steps will be taken towards implementation of the new Biodiversity Strategy 2020, adopted in May 2010. The strategy has set targets to safeguard biodiversity as well as to maintain the supply of ecosystems services that it provides. The first step in preventing loss of ecosystem services however, is to be able to quantify the services with sound and science based methodologies, through research and mapping of the existing ecosystem services at different scales across Europe.

Ecosystem services are highly topical, as on May 3 2011, the EC adopted a new strategy on biodiversity and ecosystem services in the EU by 2020. This is in line with two commitments made by EU leaders in March 2010 – “halting the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services in the EU by 2020, and restoring them in so far as feasible, while stepping up the EU contribution to averting global biodiversity loss”- and a vision for 2050: “by 2050, European Union biodiversity and the ecosystem services it provides – its natural capital – are protected, valued and appropriately restored for biodiversity’s intrinsic value and for their essential contribution to human wellbeing and economic prosperity, and so that catastrophic changes caused by the loss of biodiversity are avoided”. The strategy is also in line with the global commitments made in Nagoya in October 2010, in the context of the Convention on Biological Diversity, where world leaders adopted a package of measures to address global biodiversity loss over the coming decade.

PEER has invested in active research on ecosystem services. A new PEER initiative, called PRESS (PEER Research on Ecosystem Services), was started in 2010 with the aim of addressing some of the knowledge gaps that hinder spatially-explicit, biophysical, monetary and policy assessment of ecosystem services in Europe. The first part of the results will be published during the autumn 2011 as the PEER Report “A spatial assessment of ecosystem services in Europe: Methods, case studies and policy analysis – phase 1″. The report presents the first results focused on a selection of cases at different spatial scales to test and further develop methodologies for mapping indicators and policy analysis. The PRESS-project is a good example of how policy relevant research has its base in detailed multidisciplinary studies of the nature of societal interaction, and that grand societal challenges lead to highly interesting research topics.