In São Paulo, Belmont Forum defines directions of future research
November 29, 2017
By Karina Toledo | Agência FAPESP – Humanity will have to face the greatest challenge of its history this century: guaranteeing water, food and energy for more than 9 billion people, while at the same time preserving the environment and dealing with the consequences of global warming. Meeting this challenge will require changes to the most varied aspects of human life, such as eating, travel, and the production and consumption of goods.
The Belmont Forum, established in 2009 to provide scientific knowledge that can guide this transition to sustainability, is an international consortium comprising most of the world’s main research funding agencies, including FAPESP. Its members come from more than 50 countries on all six continents.
Representatives of the agencies that participate in the initiative met on November 6-10 in São Paulo, Brazil, to take stock of the progress achieved in the past year and agree on priorities for the research projects to be supported in 2018 and beyond.
“By the end of the week, we will select the topics to be covered by one or possibly two new calls for proposals, which we call Collaborative Research Actions, or CRAs. Each partner can choose whether to participate in the call and decide what resources to offer. These may be funding, infrastructure or human resources,” said Maria Uhle, co-chair of the Belmont Forum’s steering committee and representative of the US National Science Foundation (NSF).
Among the options discussed were biodiversity and ecosystem services, ocean sustainability, natural disaster risk mitigation, Arctic science, and avenues to achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted at the United Nations as part of the 2030 Agenda: quality education, sustainable agriculture, eradication of poverty and hunger, and a reduction in inequality, among others.
“We try to understand the priorities of each funding agency with regard to global environmental change and identify those that would really benefit from international collaboration,” Uhle explained. “Having decided on a research theme, we ask a panel of experts nominated by the participating agencies to make a collective assessment of the projects submitted. This is a big step forward in international collaboration, as research groups can now write just one proposal, which goes through a single peer review process.”
In order to be accepted, proposals must have at least two other international partners and must be transdisciplinary, involving both natural and social scientists as well as a wide array of stakeholders: depending on the project, these may include politicians and local authorities, business leaders, farmers, non-governmental organizations and research institutions.
“If a project is selected, it will be supported by the funding agency in the researcher’s country or state, so no money crosses borders,” Uhle said.
For Gilberto Camara, a member of the steering committee for FAPESP’s Research Program on Global Climate Change (RPGCC) and Belmont Forum co-chair alongside Uhle, the Belmont Forum is “an ongoing global science experiment”.
“It’s an experiment in transferring power,” he said. “This global scheme wouldn’t be feasible if each agency had to judge every project separately, so they’ve agreed to something unprecedented: decisions are taken collectively, but each funding agency or grantmaking organization is free to decide whether to join in and if so how much to invest. The result is a collective outcome of individual decisions.”
FAPESP has participated in eight calls for proposals issued under the aegis of the Belmont Forum since 2012 and has supported projects to evaluate the vulnerability of populations under extreme scenarios, strengthen adaptation responses to extreme events, appraise the environmental impacts of sugarcane production on land use and food security, reduce the vulnerability of marine-dependent coastal communities, and improve water governance in the Amazon, among many others.
A new call for proposals issued by FAPESP with the Belmont Forum is open until December 1, focusing on the development and application of biodiversity and ecosystem service scenarios across spatial scales of relevance to multiple types of decision, and on multiple dimensions of biodiversity and ecosystem services in biodiversity scenarios.
“By participating in the Belmont Forum, FAPESP seeks to extend Brazilian knowledge, especially in São Paulo State, about this unique challenge in the history of mankind,” Camara said. “It’s very important to know what may happen to the Amazon, to agriculture in the Cerrado, to São Paulo’s water supply, to our sources of energy, and to our coastal cities. The cost of remaining ignorant is very high. Scientific research always pays for itself.”
The idea is that the projects awarded funding will produce results that serve as a tool for decision making on ways to mitigate and adapt to global environmental change.
“But we’ll only be able to transform society if it wants to be transformed. There are many ways to ‘cut the cake’, many ways to understand global change. So we must keep an open mind. Our focus isn’t doing politics but doing science that can serve as a basis for public policy,” Camara said.
Heightened presence in the Americas
FAPESP President José Goldemberg stressed that in recent years, the Foundation has succeeded in achieving a balance between supporting science and shaping public policy. He cited the example of the São Paulo State economic and ecological zoning plan produced by the BIOTA-FAPESP Program, delimiting the areas in which sugar and ethanol plants can be installed without affecting biodiversity and ecosystem services.
“Ethanol has enabled us to improve air quality in São Paulo,” Goldemberg said. “We have 7 million cars in the state capital alone, yet the air is less polluted than in Mexico City or Beijing.”
One of the aims of this year’s plenary meeting of the Belmont Forum was to increase the participation of organizations from the Americas. To this end, Americas Regional Info Day was held at FAPESP on November 6. Representatives of research funding agencies in countries that are not yet members of the consortium, such as Canada, Chile and Paraguay, attended the meeting to discuss the various opportunities for cooperation and partnership.
“We use this strategy in several regions,” Uhle said. “We’ve had Info Days in Europe and Southeast Asia, and we’re having one in Africa in December. Here at the São Paulo meeting, we’re working with the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI) to create a consortium of research funding agencies in Latin America to partner with the Belmont Forum.”
It was also decided that IAI, which is headquartered in Montevideo, Uruguay, will host the Belmont Forum’s Secretariat, hitherto based at France’s National Research Agency (ANR).
“It’s hard to run an international cooperation program via a national structure like ANR, so we’ve been fortunate to attract several international organizations like IAI that can help us do this,” Uhle said.
For Marcos Regis da Silva, IAI’s executive director, the American continent is a favorable context for the development of multinational projects.
“We’re peaceful and also much more culturally homogeneous than other regions of the planet,” Silva said. “Moreover, our environmental resources are immense. Conservation of these resources and combating poverty are the priorities for our region.”
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