The Springer Nature Symposium on Sustainability and Innovation took place in Sydney, Australia last month, and brought together a diverse mix of participants, including Australian researchers, government and industry representatives, research funders and administrators to discuss how policy and research investment can be major drivers in achieving societal outcomes, using as a basis research that has contributed towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN’s SDG).
Sir Philip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief at Springer Nature, was one of the panellists in the event, where he talked about the most efficient ways to track success against the SDGs.
In this blog we highlight the themes of the discussions that took place and offer some key takeaways for each.
“The UN’s SDGs associated scientific literature is currently about 13% of the total research literature output — and it’s growing about twice the rate of the average rate of literature growth at the moment,” pointed out Philip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief at Springer Nature and former long-time Editor-and-Chief at Nature, during his opening remarks at the Symposium. Springer Nature, he said, has been tracking SDG research developments through sister company, Dimensions, as part of a programme to support relevant outcomes.
The first panel examined how industry decarbonization could be sped up in Australia. During a discussion on global carbon budgets that largely focussed on heavy industry, panellists underlined how important it is to quickly decarbonize high emissions sectors, such as transport, electricity and buildings, including the construction process. There is a need, it was pointed out, to move beyond a focus on renewables to look at process emissions, such as the carbon dioxide released by extracting the lime that helps cure standard cement. The possible contribution of emerging carbon capture technologies was also discussed, particularly Australian-developed direct air capture technology and devices. These devices, for which manufacturing plans are already being developed, pull carbon dioxide from the air to be stored underground, re-used it in food production, or combined with hydrogen to produce synthetic fuels.
One panel looked at circular economies in which materials and products are shared, leased, reused and recycled for as long as possible. Panellists focussed on the significant employment and environmental benefits that could be derived. It was pointed out that increased onshore materials processing and recycling in Australia could ensure a greater buffer against international trade disruptions and could be built around industries servicing an anticipated up to 10-fold increase in battery demand over the next 10 years and significant expansion in the use of solar panels. The idea that micro and mobile factories and processing systems could provide increasingly localized and energy and carbon efficient servicing even within national boundaries was raised as a complimentary way to address carbon emissions.
Another panel discussed the need to preserve nature-based solutions to sustainability, such as natural carbon sinks. It is much more efficient to preserve than regenerate these assets, it was pointed out. The panellists also acknowledged concerns raised by Australia State of the Environment 2021 report, which include an 8% rise in the number of endangered species, increases in extreme weather and continued coral bleaching. Among the local issues raised were the limits and possible inaccuracies of Australia’s carbon and biodiversity offset calculations – for example, modelling that has allowed the loss of mature trees as part of Australia’s scheme in favour of shrubbery. Panellists also pointed to where aboriginal knowledge can and is contributing to improving land management, highlighting the development of cultural fire credits to support Indigenous-led burning projects designed to manage not just fuel reduction, but also ecological outcomes.
A panel on food security talked about the challenges of climate change for producers and the need to provide them with timely access to climate and agricultural modelling so they can adjust cropping and soil management to changing and increasingly extreme conditions. However, Australia produces enough food to feed about 45 times its population. The risk posed by climate change to local food security is thus not primarily to the ability to produce enough food, but rather to the supply chains that get food from the farm to the consumer. Nonetheless, food waste was flagged as a hugely underestimated issue. Today, roughly 3% of Australia’s carbon emissions can be attributed to food waste. As a result, the federal government is trying to halve the country’s food waste by 2030. One third of the issue, it was pointed out, lies on the consumer end – and this problem that could be tackled through better efforts at public education.
The penultimate panel of the day asked how funders can leverage Australia’s research strengths to produce sustainability-focussed innovation.
The Australian government, it was noted, has spent the last 10 years putting systems in place to engage more with industry. This has accelerated with programmes, such as the Trailblazer Universities Program, a government commitment of roughly $360 million from 2022 to build new research capabilities, drive commercialization outcomes and invest in new industry engagement opportunities, and the proposed National Reconstruction Fund, a government fund that is designed to provide equity loans to boost new companies that diversify and transform Australia’s industry and economy.
While these initiatives address what is perceived as a lack of large-scale financial investors in Australia, the group also pointed out that Australia has more small-to-medium-sized businesses than many parts of the world and a disproportionate number of universities in the global top 100. This context, it was suggested, requires a balanced and locally tailored approach to translating Australian research. Combining deep skillsets with carefully crafted communication strategies was also widely argued is one of the best ways to manage interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary challenges.
The work of Silicon Quantum Computing, an aspiring Australian quantum computing manufacturer, was highlighted as a success story on both fronts. Based on original fundamental quantum physics research, in 2017 the company was launched with more than AUD$83 million of capital funding from across the sectors. In June 2022, Silicon Quantum Computing announced that it had created the world’s first integrated circuit manufactured at the atomic scale, a significant step along the path to producing a quantum processor.
Ultimately, Australia should be using these types of innovations to help develop a more complex economy, ensuring robustness against economic shocks, such as a drop in ore prices, said some members of the group. Australia currently sits at 74th in the world in economic complexity according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, despite being the 13th largest economy in the world in terms of gross domestic product.
The final panel considered how assessments and figures can help drive real world outcomes. The group discussed the complexities of Australian systems for assessing and rewarding value and impact, including how quantitative and qualitative systems tailor to area specific needs.
However, the panel pondered about whether there was still an over-emphasis on bibliometrics over impact in the university system, how AI driven SDG badging approaches can help identify and encourage work that contributes to sustainability, and the efficiencies of getting researchers into the habit of communicating their research thoroughly. It was acknowledged that some of the current assessment methods may stifle young, exuberant researchers, and in particular those more focused on real world sustainability outcomes than publication.
Natsumi Penberthy is a Senior Editor working across the Asia Pacific for Nature Portfolio's Partnership and Custom Media team. Previously she worked as an on-staff writer for Australian Geographic, before joining Springer Nature as an editor in 2017. She thoroughly appreciates the sense of responsibility the scientific community shoulders in trying to address the world's greatest challenges.