Paul William Jorgensen, South Africa: Young scientists bring fresh new approaches
What are the biggest challenges that science can help solve in South Africa?
The 24-year old Paul William Jorgensen is a 2010 winner of the International Green Talents Competition, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) and supported by the United Nations University, Bonn. The award is given to outstanding young scientists from around the world, selected for their achievements in the field of sustainability research. Paul earned his Bachelor’s degree (Honors) in Environmental Science in addition to a Bachelor of Social Science in Geography and Economics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. He is finishing his Master’s in Environmental Science at the same university.
UNU: Why did you choose to become a scientist?
Paul: I did not start my university career with the intention of becoming an environmental scientist. I enrolled for a degree that was very broad so my first year included subjects such as ethics, information systems, media, economics and geography. It was only later on that I decided that environmental science was where my future lies. I started to become fascinated in the way societies and economies interact with the environment and therefore decided to continue my studies in that direction.
UNU: Where does your interest in sustainable development come from?
Paul: The world’s strongest economies are based on the utilization and overexploitation of our natural resources; this is also seen as the model to achieve economic growth in developing nations. However, this model is flawed. The focus should rather be on the sustainable usage of our resources that will encourage sustainable development. This concept has sparked my interest in sustainability and how can we achieve economic and socio-economic growth in a manner that promotes the conservation of our resources.
UNU: What motivates you to do your research?
Paul: Knowing that we need to find a new way in which the environment can be given an economic voice, so that developmental decisions are based on environmental parameters and not only economic ones.
UNU: How does your research contribute to sustainability?
Paul: My research is focused on how development decisions at a local level can be influenced by the natural environment, by exploring the link between ecosystem goods and services (that is the goods and services the environment provides at no cost) and environmental risk and vulnerability. By highlighting the impact of the development to these goods and services and thus the risk to society better decisions can be made that will promote the conservation of these goods and services for future generations.
UNU: In your field, what would you state as a realistic goal and how would it be possible to achieve it?
Paul: Ecosystem goods and services need to feature more in mainstream decision-making and policy planning. When the government makes developmental decisions, it has to incorporate the cost to the environment in both a monetary and social sense and to actively reduce this cost. This is a realistic goal as the current government in South Africa is looking towards the green economy. This will hopefully result in increased awareness on the economics of our resources.
Sustainability Challenges, Science and Society
UNU: What are the biggest sustainability challenges of our time?
Paul: Climate change will result in conflicts and shortages around the utilization and ownership of our essential natural resources, such as food and water. Climate change will also create millions of environmental refugees and increased risk and vulnerability to society. This will become the biggest challenge of our time. In South Africa, we face shifting crop patterns, increased risk of drought in areas that traditionally receive high rainfall and a higher chance of floods in areas that are traditionally drier.
UNU: What do you think should be the role of scientists today?
Paul: Scientists need to play a central role in the enhancement of our society through sustainability-driven inventions, innovations and research. However, it is crucial that this is achieved in a transdisciplinary manner.
UNU: Who should promote innovation?
Paul: Innovation needs to be promoted in all sectors. There needs to be progressive policies aimed at encouraging public-private partnership that will also incorporate learning institutions. Government has to provide a green friendly platform that will allow for companies, research institutes, universities and schools to foster and showcase their innovation.
UNU: What are the biggest challenges that science can help solve in South Africa?
Paul: Science needs to provide sustainable answers to our challenges of food, water and energy security. Science also needs to play a role in reducing the poverty gap as well as the inequalities that exist in South African society. South Africa needs to reduce its dependence on coal-based energies and make use of our clear skies and windy coastlines. Science needs to find solutions to better the lives of our large rural population by providing cheap basic essential services. Generally, as natural resources become scarcer, the scientific community will play a more integrated and critical role in decision-making.
UNU: What are the opportunities for young scientists in your country?
Paul: Opportunities are still very limited to those that can afford to attend higher education institutions or to those few who are lucky to receive financial aid from the government. This is another challenge facing South African society, the encouragement and promotion of young scientists. However, there are numerous scholarships aimed specifically at science students who show potential in their fields.
UNU: How important are young scientists for industry-led R&D?
Paul: Young scientists bring fresh new approaches and therefore should be considered a critical component of R&D in industry. They also secure the sustainability of that industry through young graduate retention. If any industry wants to grow, it has to incorporate a progressive policy towards young scientists.
Green Talents Competition
UNU: What motivated you to participate in the Green Talents Competition and what do you like best about this experience?
Paul: I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to increase my network and knowledge in sustainability and also to see what sustainability means in a first-world context. I like the way the Green Talents are exposed to a broad spectrum of sustainability research that is carried out by German institutions. Germany has a proud scientific tradition and incredible research infrastructure that encourages progressive and innovative research. I also enjoy the interaction and knowledge sharing between fellow Green Talent winners.
UNU: What institution would you like to visit most and why?
Paul: I would like to see how Germany manages its land use in a sustainable way, and how the country acknowledges and utilizes its environmental goods and services. I would also like to see what international research German institutions are carrying out in the field of resource economics. There are two institutes that interest me most. The first is the United Nations University’s Institute for Environmental and Human Security (UNU-EHS) as they have some interesting programs that explore our ecosystems in a socio-economic context. The other institution is the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) as they were involved in the influential study entitled The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).
UNU: Imagine Green Talents in 2050. What do you think will be the focus of their work?
Paul: I think their focus will largely be on sustaining green economies, managing environmental refugees, adapting to climate change and inventing innovative solutions to water and energy dilemmas.
UNU: What is the role of international cooperation in science for sustainability?
Paul: International cooperation is crucial for the sustainability agenda to continue to grow. No person or country can achieve their sustainability ideals without some form of assistance from other countries. There is a need for greater knowledge transfer and availability between developed scientific communities/networks and developing/emergent ones and vice versa. There is no doubt that South Africa needs assistance and cooperation from overseas counterparts, but South Africa also has a strong research network which overseas researchers can take advantage of.
UNU: What conditions are essential for international research cooperation?
Paul: Progressive government departments, institutes and willing active participants on both sides are needed in order for effective cooperation to occur.
Oksana Buranbaeva (buranbaeva[at]vie.unu.edu)
Jessica Rosenfeld contributed to this article.
Contest winners shine with green talent in Our World 2.0
Tags: Africa, awareness, climate change, decision making, development, ecosystem goods and services, education, Environment, environmental refugees, environmental risk, essential services, Green Talents, Green Talents Competition, higher-education, innovation, international cooperation, international research cooperation, outstanding young scientists, policy planning, poverty gap, PPP, promotion of young scientists, public awareness, public private partnership, research, research for sustainability, resource economics, science, science and policy, Science for Sustainability, science policy interaction, South African, sustainability research, sustainability science, sustainable development, TEEB, UN, UNU, UNU-EHS, UNU-ViE, vulnerability, young scientists for development