The Grand Challenges

February, 2011

The International Council for Science (ICSU) is spearheading a consultation process in cooperation with the International Social Science Council (ISSC) to engage the scientific community to explore options and propose implementation steps for a holistic strategy on Earth system research.

The overarching goal of the visioning process is:
to engage the scientific community to explore options and propose steps to implement a holistic strategy for Earth system research.

This strategy will both encourage scientific innovation and address policy needs.

The 3-step process

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The Earth system visioning process is a three-step consultative process founded on the philosophy that form should follow function. The first step focuses on the urgent scientific questions, while the second step considers the institutional context, including the connections to relevant bodies (e.g. stakeholders, research initiatives, conventions and assessment processes) in order to shape an approach that will best engage the Earth system research community on the identified needs. The final step will examine how to make the transition from the current approach to the needed approach.

Throughout the three steps, broad consultation is emphasized, as is the participation of all stakeholders including the co-sponsors of global environmental change programmes, other organizations that contribute to Earth system research, funders, scientists from around the world, and early career scientists who will increasingly lead us into the future of Earth system research. ICSU is entering into this process with no preconceived conclusions.

'Earth System Science for Global Sustainability: The Grand Challenges' is the outcome of Step 1's online consultation and Visioning Earth Systems Research Meeting in September 2009.

The document proposes a focused global research initiative centered on five Grand Challenges that must be addressed over the next decade if society is to manage the global environmental change that is now underway and cope with the change that we cannot manage.

The Visioning Task Team used the following criteria in selecting the grand challenges and associated research priorities.

1. Scientific importance. Does the question address a cutting-edge research challenge that, if answered, could significantly advance our understanding within the next decade of how to achieve global sustainability, in the context of global environmental change?

2. Global coordination. Is a coordinated international or global approach involving multiple researchers in different regions and often in different disciplines needed to answer the question? If not, then such a question would fall to others (i.e. be outside the remit of this framework, despite its importance to a given field).

3. Relevance to decision makers. Will the answer to the question help to inform actions to meet urgent global social and ecological needs, especially promoting sustainability, reducing poverty, and assisting the most vulnerable in coping with global environmental change?

4. Leverage. Does the answer to the question involve a scientific or technical breakthrough, or would it create a transferable theory, model, scenario, projection, simulation or narrative that would help to address multiple problems or other challenges related to Earth system science for global sustainability?

In addition to these four criteria, the five grand challenges were also screened against a fifth criterion: did the proposed grand challenge have broad support from the research and funding community (even those not directly involved in answering the question). We believe that each of the grand challenges is widely perceived to be a fundamental question that must be addressed in the pursuit of global sustainability. In the case of the research priorities, we also added a criterion focused on the feasibility of the research: Is it plausible that the question can be answered within the next decade? We are confident that we have the scientific basis and tools available to answer the research priorities listed in this document, but success will require adequate resources and effective coordination of the international research community to ensure that the questions are addressed with focus and intensity.

The five 'grand challenges' proposed encompass:

Forecasting: improve the usefulness of forecasts of future environmental conditions and their consequences for people

Observing: develop, enhance and integrate the observation systems needed to manage global and regional environmental change

Confining: determine how to anticipate, avoid and manage disruptive global environmental change

Responding: determine what institutional, economic and behavioral changes can enable effective steps toward global sustainability

Innovating: encourage innovation (coupled with sound mechanisms for evaluation) in developing technological, policy, and social responses to achieve global sustainability

Each challenge has priority research questions and expected deliverables. To learn more about the Visioning Process, please visit: To view or download the report, please visit: