Moving scientific research into the policy realm, perspectives from Rio+20

By Kelly Ramirez, PhD

This past week I participated on an Avo’s panel series set up by SoGES at CSU, entitled ‘After Rio+20 – Moving Forward.’ I was asked to participate because I was lucky enough to attend the Rio+20 conference this past June. 

Rio+20, the UN Conference on Global Sustainability, was the follow up to the Earth Summit, the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. Briefly, from the Earth Summit came the UN Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

I took a 30 minute stroll to the beach. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo Courtesy of Kelly Ramirez.

Needless to say there were pretty large expectations for this year’s conference. The progress made in mitigating climate change the last two decades has been slow and frustrating, to say the least, and global biodiversity still continues to decline.

From the Avo’s panel, there was a general disheartened atmosphere; as scientists, we are not impressed with the progress our governments have made. However, on Wednesday I deviated from this theme and tried to focus on some positives from Rio+20; I did this for two reasons. First, the two other scientists on the panel were, rightfully so, genuinely discouraged and frustrated, as was much of the audience, with the progress made in Rio and I merely wanted to present a counter argument. Yet, I too feel frustrated, I truly get anxious when I really start to think about the progress made (or not made) in reducing the negative human impacts on the earth. (Though Dr. Michele Betsill did remind us that the goal of Rio+20 was not solely climate change politics, it was sustainability, poverty and energy- and some good progress was made on these topics). However, we cannot have a sustainable globe without simultaneously addressing climate change, and thus my continued anxiety.

Second, I chose to be more positive (or at least practical) about the outcome of Rio+20 because I am a scientist: the research we do now will eventually be incorporated into policy, and we need to be ready for that day. And indeed we have really seen a shift in the paradigm of how information is transferred to the policy sector. Increasingly we are seeing more of a bottom-up approach to solutions, where groups are formed at local and/or smaller scales, creating networks that eventually feed up to the top and affect change. Actually, this grassroots level response was highly visible at the Rio+20 Side Events (meetings held in the 2 weeks leading up to the negotiations), arguable where the most progress was made. Over 700 voluntary ‘bottom-up’ pledges to action were made across all disciplines. This commentary in Nature sums up quite well why, as earth scientists, we should continue forward and how our research can be directed.

As a participant in the Rio+20 Side Events I was able to get a sense of these bottom-up/grassroots efforts that are taking place. I attended Rio+20 because I am the Executive Director of the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative (GSBI) and experienced first hand the success of a bottom-up approach.

Briefly, the GSBI is a scientific effort linking scientists across the globe in an effort to create a coherent platform for promoting the translation of expert knowledge on soil biodiversity into environmental policy and sustainable land management for the protection and enhancement of ecosystem services. The Earth’s soils are living, dynamic interfaces that are habitats for millions of microbial and animal species. The activities of soil biota are critical to the wellbeing of human societies because their activities underpin the delivery of major ecosystem services. All of this is very well known by scientists, but the majority of people are hardly aware of this critical role played by soil biota. Meeting the challenges of land degradation and other global changes while having to sustain the productivity of our natural and managed lands requires not only knowing the role of soil biota but also implementing that knowledge. It is therefore of utmost importance that we effectively incorporate the growing scientific knowledge on the provision of vital ecosystem services by the vast numbers of species that live in the soil into future management and policy plans. -GSBI

Dr. Diana Wall, myself and Dr. Heitor Coutinho at Embrapa, Brazil. Photo courtesy of Kelly Ramirez.

The GSBI held a Side Event with Embrapa, “Towards a Truly Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative,” and our Scientific Chair, Dr. Diana Wall, presented in a Side Event Sponsored by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). From these interactions, we expanded our network. While we are a global Initiative, accumulating representatives beyond North America and Europe has been a struggle. But our trip to Rio helped us to expand the GSBI in Brazil and beyond. Additionally, we were able to make on the ground connections with important groups like the UNCCD and the CBD and have discussions that frankly cannot be facilitated over email.

These on the ground connections is what will allow the GSBI to progress and gain traction. Without membership and participants we cannot move forward, and without moving forward we cannot interject our platform into policy discussions. Further, initiatives, such as the GSBI provide a way to expand the broader impacts of research.The GSBI will ensure research on soil biodiversity and the benefits it brings to ecosystem services will be integrated into productive policy and management plans.

The dust from Rio+20 is still settling, and I think (hope) we will continue to see positive outcomes from the meeting. For now we must acknowledge that as a global community we have not done enough to ensure global sustainability, but as scientist we can always do more for ‘the future we want’.


Schlosser, P. and S. Pfirman. 2012. Earth science for sustainability. Nature Geoscience, 5: 587-588.



2 thoughts on “Moving scientific research into the policy realm, perspectives from Rio+20

  1. Pingback: Moving scientific research into the policy realm | KellySRamirez

  2. Pingback: Politics aside, can climate change and science policy be successful? | Early Career Ecologists

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