Science – A whole of science approach

The major global challenges facing humanity in recent times all involve complex science issues. This is true for climate change, covid (and the vaccines) and the circular economy. What can be overlooked is that remediation of each of these challenges requires a broader, holistic, and interdisciplinary knowledge. This breadth should be balanced by advanced capability in at least one of the traditional science disciplines.

For example, understanding climate change involves the full range of science disciplines. The warming role of atmospheric carbon dioxide demands an understanding of physics (climatology) and chemistry (spectroscopy). The development of technology solutions to remediate climate change requires engineering, chemistry and physics. The green hydrogen economy requires a knowledge of electrochemistry and photochemistry. The development of natural solutions to climate change usually involves plant sciences and ecology to provide an understanding of species loss and habitat destruction. The impact of climate change on human populations necessitates a knowledge of demographics, geography, and environmental health. The impact on the pastoral sectors and especially the most vulnerable sector of all, agriculture, involves a deep understanding of soil science, entomology (insects), plant diseases and even genetics.

The NZ forestry sector is based on a monoculture, pinus radiata, which may be vulnerable to new diseases and other risks following arising from climate warming. Hence, forest science will need to follow and anticipate accelerating climate warming and its associated flooding and drought patterns as revealed by climatology.

Another example which is important for NZ is the field of wine grapes. The need for wine producers to plan and plant for future climate change has been well known for several years. Each grape variety has its own temperature range so that many winemakers are now planning to move to warmer types. For example, the two most important export wines for New Zealand, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, are both cool climate wines originally from France. Therefore, alternative warmer climate varieties are being developed by winemakers including some which have their origins in Southern Italy or Spain. The Australian wine industry has developed a map of warm and cool zones for future wine developments.

This requires a well-developed knowledge of geography and grape variety genetics, as well as the changing microbiology of soils.

This need for a more holistic science strategy to confront the major threats and challenges to humanity is included in the Nobel Prize awards, which require the demonstration of benefits to humanity. It is also apparent in the changing pattern of Nobel Prize award fields, which increasingly involve overlap between traditional science disciplines. Over the past decades, this overlap has become evident, for example, between chemistry and molecular biology and between economics and climate modelling (mathematics and statistics).

We are in an age where the global perspective is as important as the national perspective and where holistic insights are as important as focused insights. In confronting and overcoming global challenges like climate and pandemics, the whole of science approach will be paramount.