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Opinion

Why scientists are getting behind the Future Generations Bill

‘If we return to the way things were, we will have failed’ and that’s why Big Issue founder Lord John Bird’s Future Generations Bill is essential, says Gisela Abbam, chair of the British Science Association

The past year and a half has been marked by tragedy, upheaval and loss. Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, our lives have been locked down, our freedoms curtailed, our hospitals brought to the brink and our children forced from their classrooms. You would be forgiven for thinking that the last thing we need now is to shake things up further. Surely, the sooner we are back to normal, the better.

That certainly seems to be the impression from the G7 summit. While Boris Johnson and other world leaders reaffirmed their goals of limiting global heating to 1.5C and protecting and restoring 30 per cent of the natural world by the end of the decade, the long-term investment to pay for these ambitions and the broader, holistic approach that tackling such a complex problem requires was largely absent. As a prelude to COP26, the crucial UN climate talks that the UK will host in Glasgow in November, it was somewhat disappointing. More business as usual.

But that is precisely the opposite of what the public craves. According to research by the More in Common think tank, two in three people now feel that we should seize the opportunity to make important changes in our society.

How can a politician elected for a five-year term, a scientist with a three to five year research grant or a chief executive in post for an average of five years hope to build long-term risk-based thinking into their decisions when their horizons are so limited?Gisela Abbam, chair of the British Science Association

Earlier this month, the British Science Association (BSA) published a report entitled Build Better, which considers what can be learned from the Covid-19 pandemic to construct a resilient, innovative and prosperous future for all. The answer is not more of the same.

The report reflects on a series of online events and roundtable discussions held in February and March this year as part of For Thought, a unique thought-leadership programme from the BSA and partners, in which 250 leaders from the worlds of business, science and research, policy and civil society came together to examine three themes: resilience, innovation and environmental prosperity. The overriding conclusion was that now is the time for a bold, innovative and far-reaching approach.

The pandemic has undoubtedly done a great deal of damage to lives and livelihoods. But it also offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle inequality, reappraise how we value our key workers (often some of the lowest paid members of our society), and consider how we organise decision-making processes and the way we prepare for future crises.

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To tackle these coming crises, such as antimicrobial resistance, ageing and above all climate change, leaders must act not just for the benefit of all members of all communities today but also their future children and grandchildren.

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That is why the BSA is calling for the UK government to legislate for a Future Generations Act.

Leaders in business, science and policy are somewhat constrained by the life-cycle of their roles. How can a politician elected for a five-year term, a scientist with a three to five year research grant or a chief executive at the top 2,500 global companies in post for an average of five years hope to build long-term risk-based thinking into their decisions when their horizons are so limited?

A Future Generations Act would enshrine in law the requirement for public bodies, businesses and science and research institutions to think about the long-term impact of their decisions and enable them to work with people, communities and stakeholders to address persistent societal challenges, such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change.

If we return to the way things were, we will have failed – not only ourselves, but future generations tooGisela Abbam, chair of the British Science Association

There is a precedent for this approach. Wales is currently the only country in the world to have legislated to protect future generations with the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. The Act sets out seven well-being goals that public bodies must work to achieve through collaboration, integration and balancing short-term and long-term needs. How we bring about a cultural change in our leaders and incorporate some of the aspects of the Welsh act into UK-wide legislation and the government’s ‘build back better’ agenda, needs careful consideration.

That’s not all. We also call on businesses and science and research institutions to create Future Generation Advisory Boards to undertake impact assessments, listen to the voices of younger generations to build long-term economic, social, and environmental value into the decisions they make for new products and services and consider the needs and aspirations of generations to come.

The BSA’s mission is to put science at the heart of culture and society by actively promoting a cross-disciplinary, holistic approach. We are committed to bringing more people from all parts of society into the decision-making process so that science is engaged with by all and its benefits enjoyed by all.

As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic we must ready ourselves for the next challenge and we must ensure that we can all meet that challenge together. If we return to the way things were, we will have failed – not only ourselves, but future generations too.

It is time to build better; a better, fairer, more prosperous and resilient society. And one that is better equipped to plan for the long-term; capable of thinking not just of its immediate needs of today, but the needs of citizens yet to come who will one day have to build on what we have started, to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

Gisela Abbam is the chair of the British Science Association

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