Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

Kerri-Ann Jones
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
Washington, DC
November 14, 2013

Good morning. I am delighted to be here and I would like to thank the University College Dublin’s Earth Institute including its Director Fiona Doohan and the Conference Organizer Professor Frank Convery for inviting me to speak at this important event. In addition to the always excellent Irish hospitality, which I greatly appreciate, I applaud the thought and care that has gone into the Earth Gathering event.

This is an important conference as it addresses a key relationship that we all share – our relationship to the environment. Recognizing that the earth’s natural resource base is finite and understanding how to balance our energy and economic needs with good environmental stewardship is vital. And the important role of science and technology in understanding our planet and addressing the challenges we face cannot be overstated – which seems to be the essence of this gathering today – science and sustainability.

Within the U.S. Department of State, I lead the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES). It has a long title but gives you an idea of the breadth of the issues we work on within our foreign policy and national security perspective. Given the nature of the issues we engage on – bilaterally, regionally, and multilaterally, science and technology play an essential role advancing our foreign policy objectives. Likewise, our foreign policy helps to advance our scientific goals—nationally and internationally – by building strong collaborative partnerships. In fact, allow me to share our bureau’s mission statement with you:

“Promoting a healthier planet through science and partnership.”

My view is that of a scientist diplomat, and I hope to share with you my perspectives on science and sustainability.

Science has multiple roles in working to address sustainability in our policies. On the most fundamental level – it provides the data to understand the problems we face and that data is important to ensure that policy choices are well informed. The challenges we face are complex and include issues such as addressing climate change, protecting biodiversity, and understanding the overall stress we are placing on our oceans.

Secretary Kerry captured the challenges we face earlier this year when he said, quote, “I believe that just as we are living in a changing world, so we cannot, and we must not, forget that we are living on, quite a changing planet. To respond in a way that does justice to science and to facts, what we need actually is a policy that looks forward.”[1]

Advancing sustainability must be a global effort — and the nature of science can contribute to that. Science has always been and is increasingly an international community; we speak now of the global research community.

The science community also depends on two fundamental principles – first, merit supporting and pursuing high quality research and, second, transparency, openly sharing results and testing the reproducibility of results. In building coalitions to understand the world around us and make difficult policy choices these principles are critical. To make difficult choices one must believe that they have the best information possible, viewed in an objective manner. And that information must be available to everyone — around the world and within a particular community. These two principles build trust among nations and citizens. They provide opportunities — where in the case of basic research – the availability of data can spur the translation of those findings into new technologies and new businesses. Beyond basic research, the transparency of patenting laws and business practices also contribute to new partnerships and international enterprises.

President Obama has expanded the U.S. Government’s commitment to improving access to scientific research and data. In February, Dr. John Holdren, President Obama’s Science Advisor, issued a memo to the U.S. science agencies funding $100 million or more of research to “develop plans to support increased public access to the results of research funded by the Federal Government.”[2]

In addition, in May, President Obama issued an Executive order to improve access to U.S. Government data, stating that “making information resources easy to find, accessible, and usable can fuel entrepreneurship, innovation, and scientific discovery that improves Americans’ lives and contributes significantly to job creation.”[3]

Science also provides a tool for understanding the challenging problems we face and international efforts allow us to build on each others’ investments and support international dialogue around difficult issues. We need to better understand complex systems and the science/policy interface has been receiving increased attention internationally. Allow me to mention a few examples.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is certainly the most well known, tackling the hugely complex science of climate change, mankind’s role in it, its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts, as well as presenting policymakers with options for adapting to and mitigating climate change. Hundreds of scientists and technical experts contribute to each working group report. Collectively, thousands of scientists from around the world will have contributed to the final, complete IPCC Fifth Assessment, including dozens of U.S. Government researchers.

The Working Group I contribution on the Physical Science of climate change was just released in September after an enlightening Approval Session in Stockholm. The report reinforces and strengthens the already-robust conclusions that the Earth’s climate is changing and that those changes are largely being driven by human activities. It also strengthens the confidence in projections of increasing severity from climate change unless much more comprehensive and vigorous mitigation is undertaken worldwide. Right now, our government – along with all other Parties to the IPCC – is in the midst of reviewing the final draft of the Working Group 2 report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, which will be approved in Japan in March. And in a month, the final draft of the Working Group 3 report on mitigation will be released for governmental review with the approval coming in April in Germany. It’s a long process with a monumental – and I might add voluntary – effort by all of these experts around the world, but I think we can all agree that the value it provides in helping solve what many would call the biggest challenge facing the world is enormous.

Another effort, the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations, or GEO, launched in 2005, is central to the role of science for sustainability. Its core mission is to enable the science-informed decision-making needed to drive sound policy on issues such as food, water, and energy security, resilience to natural hazards, and the development of sustainable economies. At the time of GEO’s creation, Ministers laid out a 10-Year Implementation Plan containing specific actions designed to promote full and open access to Earth-observing data and information, and work to towards building a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) to meet the need for “timely, quality, long-term, global information as the basis for sound decision-making.” The core tenant of GEO and GEOSS is simple: To make the individual Earth observation systems work more like nature does – as a system of systems – through common protocols, interoperability and the free and open exchange of Earth observation data.

Biodiversity — The Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), is intended to help integrate scientific knowledge and expertise about biodiversity, ecosystem services and the value of both to human well-being into policymaking. Its work is lead by an independent group of scientific experts who will conduct open, transparent assessments of existing scientific knowledge and information on biodiversity and ecosystem services. The potential is great for IPBES to serve as both a repository of valuable scientific knowledge and expertise, as well as a resource for policymakers at all levels to formulate science-based policies regarding biodiversity and ecosystem services.

A final initiative I would like to highlight is the United Nations World Ocean Assessment, which aims to provide a scientific assessment of the state of the ocean for the first time. It is designed to reveal, through peer-reviewed science, the efficacy of ocean and coastal policy and management decisions. If comprehensive input is provided and properly analyzed, the results of the first World Ocean Assessment will provide a valuable baseline from which successive Assessments can be compared.

In addition to understanding, science and technology also provide ways to address some of the challenging environmental problems we face.

Starting in the 1970s, we began to understand that chemicals we were using for refrigeration, air conditioning, and aerosols were doing serious damage to the Earth’s ozone layer. The discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole and thinning of the ozone layer threatened catastrophic public health consequences from increased exposure to UV light. It was this science, and public understanding and acceptance of it, that led governments in 1987 to adoption of the Montreal Protocol in which countries agreed to the first in what would become a number of steps to phase out ozone-depleting substances. But the story doesn’t end here, because we now face the challenge of finding climate-friendly alternatives to ozone-depleting substances.

The use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, is growing as they are alternatives to ozone-depleting substances that are being phased out under the Montreal Protocol. Unfortunately, HFCs are also potent climate gases. Recognizing that we do not want to solve one problem—the ozone hole—at the expense of another—climate change, the United States, Canada, and Mexico have proposed to amend the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFCs. Doing so is possible because we have developed the technology to use less damaging alternatives in many sectors. For example, scientists and engineers have redesigned refrigeration systems so that they can use gases like propane, carbon dioxide, and ammonia as the refrigerant rather than HFCs. And chemists have designed entirely new molecules that can be used for automobile air conditioners, chillers, and for appliance and construction foams.

Fresh water is another crucial issue where collaboration is essential and where the private sector has a central role. By 2025, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population will be living under water-stressed conditions, including roughly a billion people who will face absolute water scarcity. Worldwide demand for freshwater is expected to outstrip supply by 40% by 2030 – just 15 years from now. Water shortages, poor management, and greater hydrological variability (from climate change) will make it harder for countries to produce food and generate energy.

But the good news is that many water problems are solvable. In the United States we launched the U.S. Water Partnership in 2012, which is mobilizing public and private resources to address water challenges around the world, especially in the developing world.

Launched with $600 million in project commitments, the Partnership now has 78 member organizations and counting. One initiative, the Asia-Pacific Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience Network, initiated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is working in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines with funding from Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation and Chevron Corporation. Another partner, the University of Nebraska, is sharing with farmers a National Science Foundation-funded project that developed wireless underground sensor networks to give real-time information about soil moisture, allowing them to get “more crop per drop” of irrigation water.

Of course the U.S. is also looking internally to its own sustainability challenges. A 2013 National Academy of Sciences report on “Sustainability for the Nation” called for federal efforts to take a more integrative approach to sustainability in planning, but it also drew attention to several instances where sustainability had guided state and local efforts within the United States.

One example given was the city of Philadelphia, which was faced with an overtaxed, combined system for handling both sewage and rainwater, leading to sewage discharges into local waterways during periods of heavy rain. Rather than take the traditional and expensive route of significantly expanding its sewage treatment system, Philadelphia instead adopted a holistic policy of rainwater management that contributed to more green space, shade, water recycling and energy savings for the city. The “Green Stormwater Infrastructure” Plan is cited as an example of sustainable design, one with multiple environmental and budgetary benefits.

Recognizing the need to spur and invest in research that could identify solutions, the U.S. National Science Foundation established the Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (SEES) program that seeks to foster collaborative, multi-disciplinary approaches to understand and overcome barriers to sustainable human well-being. One recent award under this program was to the University of Massachusetts, which received a $737,000 five-year grant to develop a network of researchers and policymakers that will put forward a shared framework for better coastal infrastructure planning in the Caribbean and the Northeast. Super Storm Sandy and other storms in the Northeast demonstrate a need for coordinated research into the evolving effects of climate change and infrastructure resilience to hurricanes in coastal regions.

Tackling the environmental challenges is an international undertaking. International cooperation is critical; we must cooperate at all levels—from researchers to policymakers—and we must ensure that these concerns are integrated with our broader foreign policy activities and priorities.

The term “partnership” is particularly special to me since I serve as the U.S. co-chair of a very important partnership with Ireland and Northern Ireland known as the U.S.-Ireland Research and Development Partnership. This partnership grew from the Good Friday Agreement, recognizing that collaborative research was an excellent way to build relationships, solve shared problems and stimulate new industry. The R&D Partnership initially identified 3 priority areas: nanotechnology, sensor technology, and cystic fibrosis and diabetes. We recently expanded cycstic fibrosis and diabetes to include all health areas, and added telecommunications and energy and sustainability to our focal areas. There are currently a total of 14 funded Partnership proposals totaling over $29 million in support. So far these projects have brought together over 50 principal investigators and researchers (including research students) from all three jurisdictions.

These investments address some of our challenging environmental problems. In May I visited the National University of Ireland Galway, where I toured one such project involving researchers from NUIG, Queens University Belfast, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the United States. The project they are working on together hopes to develop sensor laser technology to measure greenhouse gases absorbed by the ocean. This will improve our ability to measure carbon dioxide and help us predict future climate change impacts for key policymakers.

We have several Partnership projects in the nanotechnology area as well, one, involving researchers from the University of Texas, Queens University Belfast, Tyndall National Institute, and Dublin City University, is exploring alternative materials to silicon which consume less power and could lead to more energy efficient electronics.

Finally, yet another project involving researchers from right here at University College Dublin along with the University of Texas, University of Rhode Island, and Queens University Belfast, aims to reduce the economic and environmental cost of harnessing offshore wind energy, which is a key challenge to increasing the availability of renewable energy.

Through the Partnership, the U.S., Ireland, and Northern Ireland demonstrate science is essential to addressing shared challenges. The partnership also conveys the importance the private sector will play in developing solutions to environmental challenges. Our goal, within government, should be to create an enabling environment for this type of innovation, and to create an increasing number of opportunities for collaboration through public private partnerships. I was pleased to visit Dublin and Belfast one year ago with then-Special Representative Kris Balderston from the Secretary’s Office of Global Partnership Initiatives. We invited members of the private sector in the United States to join us and made important links with the private sector that I hope will continue to grow.

The R&D Partnership is but one of many collaborative efforts involving U.S. and Irish scientists. There is a large Irish diaspora community in the United States and its contributions to U.S. science are impressive. With the 2011 formation of the Wild Geese Network of Irish Scientists, that community is now well organized and working to tap the collective knowledge and networks of its scientists, engineers, innovators, entrepreneurs, and science policy experts for the benefit of both nations. The Department of State in 2012 launched a partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering – it is called NODES, Networks of Diasporas for Engineering and Science. Ireland was the very first nation to partner with NODES, co-sponsoring a very successful event in Boston last year that strengthened connections and stimulated collaborations.

Every country and every community is facing the need to address environmental problems and integrate sustainability into their current and future plans. Each country has its own history, culture and policies that shape its path forward and global cooperation works across these similarities and differences. Science is a tool that lets us work together – moving toward a better understanding of each other as we collaborate to understand the world we live in. Together we can make progress. Events such as the Earth Gathering allow us to discuss the challenges we all face and learn from our collective experiences. I am very honored to lead the State Department’s bureau focused on environmental issues and scientific partnerships. I have done so now for over four years and am consistently humbled by the great ideas and initiatives undertaken around the world. I am certain that your discussions at this Gathering will continue to move us forward.

Thank you.


[1] Remarks delivered at the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership on June 23, 2013, in New Delhi.

[2] February 22, 2013,

[3] E.O. 13642, “Executive Order — Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information”,




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