Paul Kemp, Professor of Ecological Engineering and director of the International Centre for Ecohydraulics Research at University of Southampton. Professor Kemp co-chaired the 2021 Frontiers Symposium, “From seeds to needs – Regenerating ecosystems services to halt the biodiversity crisis”. He gives his thoughts on the event and importance of cross-discipline research.
At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow this November, we saw the world put its best foot forward to tackle climate change and its impacts. From carbon emissions to adaptation and mitigation, the pressing issue of rising CO2 levels rightly made headline after headline. A casual observer would think that is the only environmental challenge we face, but the real picture is of course more nuanced.
Biodiversity loss has historically been tacked onto the climate change agenda, but it has never received the attention it needs. The rate of species extinction is accelerating, along with the degradation of our habitats, which will have dire impacts on communities around the world, especially for those whose livelihoods depend on natural resources. Our understanding of the reasons for, and impact of, biodiversity loss is poor compared to carbon emissions, and we need to find people working across this complex field to bring it into focus.
At the 2021 Frontiers Symposium “From seeds to needs: Regenerating ecosystems services to halt the biodiversity crisis”, 76 researchers and practitioners across academia, industry and the public sector came together to discuss how engineering can provide solutions to the global biodiversity crises in freshwater, terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The symposium’s objective was to identify the major challenges to biodiversity conservation, pinpoint which aspects engineering could most assist with, and then facilitate collaborative projects in these areas.
Global challenges like biodiversity loss do not have a single solution. They need to be tackled from many angles, and interdisciplinary projects like those enabled by Frontiers are key to this. After all, we live in a world of specialists. At school, we are taught in separate classes, which is further reinforced at university, where we become subject matter experts and are trained to defend our areas of expertise. Even later-stage career progression disincentivises hopping between disciplines: it is seen as a disadvantage. But that is a fallacy – real-world challenges are by their very nature interdisciplinary in the broadest sense. For example, even just examining the science of a biodiversity issue will only give you half the picture; for solutions to be effective, socio-economic considerations need to be integrated from the very start.
With this in mind, the Frontiers format has shown we can find people who bridge the interdisciplinary divide, facilitate productive discussion, and create synergy between the silos. Over the course of three days, we got people talking, networking, and bringing ideas to life, even fully remotely. The delegates who achieved the most points were announced and celebrated in during the closing session, and this fun activity helped us make sure they felt encouraged and comfortable sharing their expertise.
The funding also played an important role. One of the biggest challenges in my field is obtaining research funding for initiatives that involve different specialisms. While Frontiers’ seed funding is relatively modest compared to other channels, it is tailored to early- and mid-career researchers, rather than those established in their own field, and is enough to get projects off the ground and obtain the proof of concept they need to secure future funding. It supports more than just the research outcomes; it promotes cross-disciplinary thinking in the next generation of engineering leaders.
A fantastic example of one of the projects selected this year brings together expertise from ecology, engineering, and industry to create sustainable hydropower for the future. Hydropower presents many opportunities to contribute to decarbonisation, yet as with any infrastructure, the long-term impacts on local ecosystems need to be minimised. The benefits of maintaining and responsibly managing local biodiversity is not only important for the health of the environment, but also for those who rely on services that benefit from the ecosystem, like fisheries. I was excited to see that the collaborator from industry recognises the importance of biodiversity for the community, and to see that they are committed to finding solutions that protect local livelihoods and conserve biodiversity.
Feedback from other attendees was also overwhelmingly positive, even among those who did not enter or complete a bid for seed funding, simply because of the discussions that were enabled.
To solve global challenges of today and the future, we need to bring people from diverse backgrounds together. The Frontiers symposium demonstrated exactly how such conversations can be facilitated in practice. In my 17 years of working in this field, chairing this event has been an incredible highlight, and I am eager to see how the collaborations from this symposium develop in the future.
The Frontiers programme is actively seeking new partnerships and funding. If you are interested in working with us, please get in touch: Frontiers@RAEng.org.uk