Top-down regulation for large-scale change in sustainability

The European Union has been developing programs, initiatives, and directives to be at the forefront of sustainability. Understanding the impact of this top-down regulation on research and on scientists – both the obligations and the opportunities – is an increasingly important factor to consider.
Top-down regulation for large-scale change in sustainability
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A question I have been asking myself ever since I got in touch with sustainability is: “When will top-down regulation enable large-scale change?”. In recent years, the European Union (EU) has been developing programs to be at the forefront of sustainability.

Horizon Europe

Horizon Europe is the EU’s flagship research and innovation funding program for the period 2021–2027. It focuses on supporting research and innovation in sustainability – both in the environmental and societal sense. Its predecessor, Horizon 2020, supported projects for marine and urban life, cancer, and climate neutrality.

With a budget of over €95 billion, Horizon Europe aims to drive scientific excellence, tackle societal challenges, and promote innovation across various sectors. It places a strong emphasis on sustainability, with dedicated funding streams for projects addressing environmental issues, climate action, and societal transformations. However, other courses such as cancer are also included.

The EU Horizon program. Image source the European Commission.

Impact on research and scientists

  1. Access to Funding: Researchers aligned with Horizon Europe’s sustainability objectives have enhanced funding opportunities. Note that other funding bodies might be indirectly impacted as well.
  2. Open Science: It is a legal obligation to make data available instead of commercializing them. That means not all data has to be published, but if it is, it “should” happen as open access.
  3. Cooperation: An inherent value of all this funding program is cooperation. Of course, collaborations within Europe are in the focus. However, especially for working with laboratories in developing countries, there is a great opportunity given that they often lack the necessary funding but can offer valuable access to expertise, sites, biological samples, or societal circumstances.
A structural explanation of what the EU Horizon supports, read more here. Image source the European Commission.

CSRD & ESRS​

The Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) is a regulatory initiative aimed at enhancing corporate transparency and accountability regarding sustainability matters. It requires companies to disclose information on their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance. With initially more than 1000 data points to be reported, it is a real bureaucracy monster.  Complementing the CSRD, the European Sustainability Reporting (ESRS) provides the guideline for what is to be reported to ensure consistency and comparability.

These directives display an important shift in corporate reporting, making sustainable measures almost as important as financial metrics. In this way, investors should be incentivized and supported to value sustainability related matters more.

This timeline from the worldfavor blog shows clearly how an increasing number of companies will be included in reporting schemes. Of note, funding bodies or universities might ask such data from groups in academia as well in the future. Image source worldfavor

Impact on research and scientists​

  1. Reporting: Companies need to assess, report, and optimize their sustainability performance – also within their R&D departments. That is, footprints have to be measured and analyzed. In the future, universities or funding bodies could also ask for such data from academic laboratories.
  2. Purchasing: Since reporting on all impacts is required, the carbon footprint and working conditions have to be assessed. Thus, scientists might be able to receive more information about the footprint of their product but might find themselves faced with the requirement to choose options that comply with certain standards. Of note, companies might raise prices due to required changes in procurement and manufacturing.
  3. Funding: Funding bodies, especially those in European countries, might join the initiative and ask for data on footprints or prioritize projects that contribute to sustainable development.
  4. Publishing: Many publishers (Nature, Science, Wiley, Elsevier) are companies themselves. Thus, those listed in Europe will need to report on their contribution to sustainability as well. This might impact which work they publish, which journals they run, how they run these journals, or whether they ask researchers to report on sustainable practices for each publication.

Looking into the future

As the regulatory landscape evolves and sustainability becomes increasingly essential for research and innovation, here are some steps researchers can take to prepare themselves for future developments:

  1. Stay Informed: Stay informed about developments. For example, knowing about initiatives such as CSRD, ESRS, and Horizon Europe, can be helpful to not be surprised when moving into industry positions or being approached by the institute’s management.
  2. Use the opportunities available! Given that funding patterns might change, it might become possible to receive support for sustainability related topics such as biodiversity or plant physiology that previously were underfunded. There will also be chances to enhance your knowledge and skills in sustainability-related areas and can make you stand out when you apply for grants or positions in the future.
  3. Integrate Sustainability: Embed sustainability principles into your research practices, from experimental design to data analysis. Consider the environmental and societal impacts of your work even if you do not yet quantify them: being familiar with the topic will be invaluable in the future.

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