Joseph Lewis
March 2024

Redefining environmental science for the next generation

ducklings looking optimistic about the future

This article is adapted from 'Transforming the planet: Our vision for the future of environmental science', which sets out a vision for the role of environmental science in facilitating the transition to a sustainable society.

In 2023, the IES’s Future of ES23 horizon scanning and foresight project set out a vision to shape the future of the environmental sciences. Beyond our vision for a more positive future and how it can be created, the IES also took stock of developments for environmental science and what they mean for how we view the discipline.

Definitions are important. If environmental science is defined in too narrow terms, it may limit our scope for collaboration. If environmental science is defined too broadly, it may open the door to greenwashing and other forms of misinformation that weaken public trust in science. A good definition is clear, accessible, and has strong boundaries that support targeted interventions and actions.

In ‘Transforming the planet’, the IES defined environmental science as:

"Modern environmental science is an interdisciplinary challenge-led field studying, developing, and disseminating knowledge of natural processes and systems through scientific tools, methods, and understandings, including their application to social and economic systems, the creation and assessment of solutions to environmental challenges, and the two-way interactions between the human and natural worlds. 

Environmental scientists work across natural and social disciplines, incorporating academics, policy professionals, environmental engineers, and practitioners. They use scientific methods to inform environmental work, as well as insights from diverse sources of knowledge including professional practice, the interactions between science, policy, and society, and indigenous forms of knowledge."

What next?

Any future for the environment will be determined at its heart by environmental science and the scientists who will deliver that future, both through the evidence and understandings that help people to engage with the environment, as well as the insights that drive environmental solutions. 

Science is already changing, but the workforce will need to continue changing to bring together society, policy, and evidence to address the immense environmental challenges facing our planet.