Toward sustainable environmental quality: A call to prioritize global research needs


Identifying, prioritizing, and advancing research priorities are important goals for those engaged in scientific enterprise. Anticipating the greatest scientific needs and challenges presents opportunities to be more agile in response, more efficient in purpose, and more intentional in allocation of effort, particularly when resources are stressed. A reorientation of research in support of the needs of decision makers and citizens at global, regional, national, and local scales is needed (Reid et al. 2010). How are such challenges anticipated and research priorities set? Government, industry, and academic entities define organizational visions, missions, and goals as perfunctory exercises, then respond and re-parameterize their efforts temporally in reaction to citizenry, regulatory expectations, and funding availability. However, without dedicated forums to intentionally promote multidisciplinary exchanges across different sectors, consensus for research needs often is not consistent among governmental, industrial, and academic sectors.

Two forms of exercises to identify and prioritize research needs are rapidly gaining traction. Horizon scanning exercises focus on potential threats, opportunities, and developments that are not widely recognized (Sutherland and Woodroof 2009; Amanatidou et al. 2012). Research prioritization exercises (Rudd 2011; Sutherland, Fleishman, et al. 2011) identify and prioritize contemporary and emerging challenges for an organization or field of study. Research prioritization exercises have identified major national and international scientific needs to support the fields of conservation biology (Sutherland et al. 2006, 2009; Fleishman et al. 2011; Rudd et al. 2011), agriculture (Pretty et al. 2010) and water management (Brown et al. 2010), and, most recently, the risks of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in the environment (Boxall et al. 2012). These prioritization efforts use a “key questions” approach (Sutherland, Fleishman, et al. 2011), where candidate research questions are solicited broadly from scientists and others who use scientific evidence, then focused by international experts during workshops. Important and timely needs can then be prioritized following workshops by attendees and the broader scientific community. Regular horizon scanning exercises (Sutherland et al. 2010, 2012, 2013; Sutherland, Bardsley, et al. 2011) that flag emerging issues complement periodic research prioritization exercises (Rudd 2011) and information across research prioritization exercises can be synthesized for new insights on potential complementary research approaches dealing with complex, multidisciplinary issues (e.g., Rudd and Lawton 2013). Thus, in addition to identifying critical areas of need, outcomes of horizon scanning and research prioritization activities can inherently support strategic long range planning of individual organizations, while aligning such efforts within a framework of consensus priorities of importance to the global community.

A recent research prioritization workshop was held by the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry's (SETAC) Global Pharmaceuticals Advisory Group, which generated a “Top 20” list of research questions and needs to better understand risks of PPCPs in the environment (Boxall et al. 2012). Over 400 questions were initially solicited from SETAC members and other scientists. These questions were reduced, largely to avoid redundancy, to 101 questions by a steering committee with tripartite (government, industry, academia) representation. An expert workshop, also with carefully balanced tripartite representation, was then held with 42 participants from North America, South America, Europe, and Asia to target the Top 20 research questions from the original list of 101. These Top 20 questions were partitioned to 7 categories:

  • 1.Prioritization of substances for assessment
  • 2.Pathways of exposure
  • 3.Bioavailability and uptake
  • 4.Effects characterization
  • 5.Risk and relative risk
  • 6.Antibiotic resistance
  • 7.Risk management

After the workshop, participants ranked the Top 20 questions in a prioritized list of the “most critical questions to aid in development of future research programs on the topic.” The outcomes of this exercise were recently published in Environmental Health Perspectives (Boxall et al. 2012). Because it represents the first global, tripartite synthesis effort on this topic, the article is anticipated to generate broad impact. For example, follow-up workshops have already been held in South Korea and Australia to better define regional research needs. Furthermore, an ongoing project has collected full rankings of the Top 20 questions by 500 corresponding authors (from 57 countries) of articles published on PPCPs in the environment.

SETAC represents a unique scientific organization because it features tripartite representation in membership composition, and explicitly requires a similar balance in leadership structure. As the leading global environmental science society, SETAC fosters scientific exchange among its members through scientific meetings, scholarly publications, advisory groups, specialty meetings, and technical and Pellston workshops. Pellston workshops, in particular, enjoy a storied reputation in the history of environmental science because of traction gained in addressing pressing issues of global importance arising, in part, from the Society's tripartite approach to achieving scientific consensus. With an organizational mission of promoting balanced, sound scientific approaches “for the protection, enhancement and management of sustainable environmental quality and ecosystem integrity,” SETAC remains perfectly positioned to facilitate global efforts to identify, prioritize, and advance scientific approaches that address the greatest challenges to sustainable environmental quality. For example, in 2013, SETAC will hold meetings in each of its geographical units (Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America, North America) for the first time (Mozur 2013).

Over the past 30 years, SETAC has responded to many of the leading threats to environmental quality, yet the necessity of performing research prioritization and prospective horizon scanning exercises in support of environmental research remains clear (Sutherland and Woodroof 2009; Rudd 2011; Sutherland, Fleishman, et al. 2011). We feel it is critical to recognize the tremendous potential utility of performing a horizon scanning exercise for SETAC in the near future. Identifying and prioritizing major research questions at a global scale would be unprecedented in the study of environmental quality. It would support continuing the advancement of important research trajectories while identifying emerging areas deserving future attention. We call on SETAC to initiate formal research prioritization and horizon scanning to identify and prioritize global research needs to achieve sustainable environmental quality.