News Archive

posted 01/30/04

Earth Institute Fellows Address Questions of Sustainable Development

Earth Institute Fellow Dr. Martin Sandbu

Earth Institute Fellow Dr. Martin Sandbu is assisting on the Sao Tome and Principe project. Sao Tome and Principe is a small island country off West Africa that recently discovered oil off its coast. "It doesn't suffer the inertia of some of the larger countries, so there is hope this new wealth can be managed differently, in a way that alleviates poverty and disease," says Sandbu.

While modern society likes to think of itself as scientifically and technologically advanced, there are many questions critical to our survival that still can't be answered. The traditional academic fields helped develop the world we live in, and along with the wonders of the modern age, created the problems of environmental degradation. Unless we learn a lot more in a hurry, the way we live today will not be sustained in the future. That is the philosophy behind a new post-doctoral program at Columbia University called the Earth Institute Fellows that is trying to mobilize the sciences and policy to achieve a sustainable future, especially for the poor.

Thus far, 16 Fellows are at work in the program. The objective, according to Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, is to expose scientists and economists early in their careers to the questions that others in related fields are asking in order to spur entirely new avenues of intellectual investigation. "The traditional academic fields have not been successful in addressing the big questions of global sustainability," said Sachs. "We must cut across the boundaries of disciplines and encourage young scholars to learn from each other and collaborate as they tackle these critical issues."

The goal of the Fellows program is to consider the big issues associated with making our way of life sustainable on this planet from a variety of disciplines.

  • How do we prevent global warming? Climatologists and economists weigh in.
  • How do we improve food production in countries where people are starving? Agronomists and anthropologists work together.
  • How do we learn to efficiently recycle garbage? Engineers and urban policy makers have ideas.
  • How do we make sure the next earthquake in Istanbul doesn't topple the city? Seismologists and social workers collaborate.
  • How do we ensure there is enough fresh, clean water to continue human life? Hydrologists and villagers organize well digging.
  • How do we safely dispose of toxic and nuclear waste? Physicists, political scientists and local community boards share ideas.

The young scholars in the EI Fellows program are working with each other and with Columbia's renowned faculty to connect these fields and issues.

"The post-doctoral level is one of the pivotal levels of science," said Sachs. "A major program like this can stimulate a large number of future scientific leaders in sustainable development and keep Columbia on our toes by supporting the best of the young scientists in this integrated field of sustainable development."

The program began two years ago and expanded to its current size when 12 scientists entered last year, which program organizers expect to be the size of each year's new group. Applicants are selected based on the relevance of their research to one of the Earth Institute's six core areas—earth science, biology, engineering, health science, social science, and applications—as well as their potential to successfully address such cross-disciplinary issues within sustainable development, such as alleviating poverty and hunger or halting environmental degradation and the decline of biodiversity.

"I hope that in 10 years, with roughly 250 new scientific leaders in sustainable development out there, Columbia will have made a mark on this great challenge," said Sachs. "By then we should be able to say that we've made a difference in the ability of the world to face the problems of biodiversity preservation or climate change or extreme poverty. I expect in 10 years we'll see those kinds of results on this investment."

At a recent monthly meeting of the fellows, Kate Jones, a biologist from England, presented her work to a half a dozen of her colleagues in the program. In addition to conducting an in-depth study of bat diversity and extinctions around the world, Jones is hoping to use her knowledge to help international organizations such as the World Conservation Union set more realistic goals for efforts to protect other mammals.

Even though her talk was dense with the biology of different bat species, it nevertheless stimulated a far-reaching discussion about global conservation, with the most probing questions coming from Martin Sandbu, one of the two economists in the group. That sort of interaction, say many of the fellows, is not an unusual occurrence at their meetings, and the depth of questioning often helps them see their work in a new light.

"It's exciting to realize that I can use my thinking and my techniques to help a conservation scientist think about her work," said Sandbu.

Sandbu received his Ph.D. at Harvard University in political economy and government, and his research focuses on the economics of fairness, health and economic development, and ethics and political philosophy. While an Earth Institute Fellow, he became interested in the "paradox of plenty," where discoveries of natural resources like oil in poor nations bring little improvement to the living standards of their citizens.

Sao Tome and Principe, a poor island nation off the coast of Africa, recently discovered oil and, fearing this "paradox of plenty," asked for advice. The first influx of money from oil exploration contracts with Chevron/Texaco and other companies could be over $100 million, several times Sao Tome and Principe's annual gross domestic product (GDP).

In September, Sandbu was asked to sit in on a phone call with Jeff Sachs and the President of Sao Tome and Principe. As a result, President Fradique de Menezes, invited a group of advisers to Sao Tome and Principe in November 2003, and that group included Sandbu. During his research on the island, Dr. Sandbu conducted over forty interviews with presidential staff, cabinet ministers, parliament, judiciary, civil society, unions, and UN staff.

Sao Tome and Principe is a small country, which offers the possibility for great change," says Sandbu. "It doesn't suffer the inertia of some of the larger countries, so there is hope this new wealth can be managed differently, in a way that alleviates poverty and disease."

Sandbu may return to San Tome in a few weeks to help advise parliament on the writing of the "oil revenue management law," aiming to help the country avoid the problems that have plagued other low-income oil exporters. By integrating natural resource management for the benefit of everyone, Sao Tome and Principe stands to become a model for sustainable development in the 21st century.

The Fellows are not assigned to a specific research project or senior faculty member when they begin their two-year term. This, according program director David Downie, frees them to do substantial research of their own choosing at the beginning of their career without being held back by the established direction of an on-going project or the expectation that they will work on increasingly narrow research questions.

"Our goal is to bring in young, vibrant scholars with fresh ideas and great enthusiasm," said Downie. "What makes us notable is the fact that this is a trans-disciplinary program. The fellows themselves set the agenda." To facilitate critical thinking and access to potential collaborators, each Fellow is guided by one or more senior scholars.

Given the pace of change around the world, from the consumption of non-renewable resources to the growth of large urban centers, and the pressing nature of the problems that face society, Sachs and others believe this generation of scientists must make substantial progress in order to ensure a sustainable future for everyone, especially for the world's poor.  

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is among the world’s leading academic centers for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor.