GFZ's position on the Leopoldina paper “Earth System Science”

GFZ position on the Leopoldina Report "Earth System Science", which calls for the geosciences to be modernised and shaped in future by the guiding idea of Earth system science.

In the summer of 2022, the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina published a Report on Tomorrow’s Science “Earth System Science: Discovery, Diagnosis, and Solutions in Times of Global Change”. In summary, it writes:

“In order order to understand the Earth as one system and find effective solutions for global challenges, German Geosciences need to be modernised with Earth System Science as the future operating framework. This is the recommendation made by the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina in its Report on Tomorrow’s Science “Earth System Science: Discovery, Diagnosis, and Solutions in Times of Global Change” published today. The report provides an overview of the field of research and proposes steps to be taken to establish the concept.”

On the occasion of today's Leopoldina symposium “Earth System Science: A New Guiding Idea for the Geosciences“, the GFZ proposes in a position paper to involve especially young researchers more in the discussion about the future of the geosciences.

The complete GFZ position paper:

As the German Research Centre for Geosciences, we have anchored the view of the Earth as a system and thus geoscience as an “Earth system science” in our vision for many years: “The future can only be secured by understanding the Earth system and its interaction with humans: We develop a sound system and process understanding of the solid Earth as well as strategies and options for action to counter global change and its regional impacts, to understand natural hazards and mitigate associated risks, and to assess the impact of humans on the Earth system.”

The recently published Leopoldina Report on Tomorrow’s Science “Earth System Science” is an important impulse that is more topical than ever. The topics of climate and biodiversity crisis, energy supply, extreme events, raw material security and sustainability have an extraordinarily high social relevance and have become even more important in the years since 2018 - the beginning of the Leopoldina's referral. We see the Report as a basis for discussion for the geosciences in general and also for the discussion at our Centre.

We consider the integrative approach of the Leopoldina Report for all sub-fields of the geosciences and the self-critical view of the still existing fragmentation of the geosciences to be particularly important. It will be a task for the next few years to achieve solidarity between the professional societies, the non-university research institutions and the universities. The universities of applied sciences, which provide an important part of the training for applied geosciences, should not be forgotten.

The main authors of the Leopoldina Report rightly emphasise the need for change in many areas, for example, with regard to the systemic view of the geosciences, big data and course content or university teaching. In our view, there are already initiatives and projects in many places that address these topics. This applies both to the programme-oriented funding of the Helmholtz Association with the major research programme "Changing Earth – Sustaining our Future" and to a whole series of universities and universities of applied sciences. For example, numerous DFG-funded collaborative projects with the participation of many German universities have taken a holistic and systemic approach to these topics, including Collaborative Research Centres, Clusters of Excellence and Priority Programmes. The BMBF and BMWK also fund programmes that contribute to the energy transition with holistic collaborative research, e.g. the specialist programme “Geo Research for Sustainability (GEO:N)”. However, we see a need here to systematically record the initiatives within the broad geoscientific community and to invite coordinators of these initiatives for discussion in order to create a link.

It seems important to us that the young generation of researchers – from students to doctoral students and post-docs – are more involved than before in the debates about the future of their subject or their disciplines. Diversity in research is also a topic that should be given even more attention, especially in the geosciences, which are active internationally and in many cultural circles.

The Future Report also addresses geoscientific courses and degrees, for which it attests an unclear focus. As teachers and researchers, we deal with students on a daily basis and share the report's approach of understanding the Earth as a system. At the same time, it is important to us that students who come to us for postgraduate work have a deep understanding of their respective sub-disciplines. How this ambivalence of a cross-disciplinary focus on Earth system sciences and subject-specific depth in sub-disciplines can be addressed needs to be discussed with both the universities and the students.

The same applies to the required teaching content for professionalising communication with society and with other research disciplines. The crises and problem areas mentioned at the beginning are interrelated in many cases and require a multi- and transdisciplinary approach to solve them. This also includes the guiding principle of understanding the Earth and people as a system. The geosciences in particular have the opportunity to play to their strengths here. However, this can only be discussed together with the young researchers it concerns. The Leopoldina's Report on Tomorrow’s Science “Earth System Science” is a starting point for this important discussion about the future. Together we form the geoscientific community and together we are responsible for shaping its future.

16 December 2022

Prof. Dr Susanne Buiter - as Scientific Director

Prof. Dr Charlotte Krawczyk - as GFZ Programme Director of our
research programme “Changing Earth – Sustaining our Future”.

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