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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March-April 2009

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Editors' Picks - March/April 2009

Catalyzing the Solar Revolution
Matthew W. Kanan and Daniel G. Nocera, “In Situ Formation of an Oxygen-Evolving Catalyst in Neutral Water Containing Phosphate and Co2+,” Science 321, no. 5892 (22 August 2008): 1072–75

Putting solar power on the market as a competitive alternative energy source has had its share of obstacles, including one of the biggest—how to store solar energy for use when the sun is not shining. In an article that inspires hope, MIT researchers Matthew Kanan and Daniel Nocera describe a simple chemical process that mimics photosynthesis, using sunlight to split water into pure hydrogen and oxygen gases. The two gases can then be later recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity for a home or car.

The process requires two catalytic reactions—one to capture the hydrogen and one to capture the oxygen from water (H2O), and it is this latter reaction that has, until now, remained a major stumbling block. Kanan and Nocera developed a new catalyst using a simple and nontoxic combination of cobalt metal, phosphate, and an electrode, all placed in water at room temperature. When electricity is passed through the electrode, oxygen is produced and can be stored for later use.

The researchers still have a few hurdles to overcome. They are working to find a substitute for platinum, the expensive catalyst used on the hydrogen side of the reaction. They also note in their paper, “If artificial photosynthesis is to enable the storage of solar energy commensurate with global demand, water-splitting chemistry will need to be performed at a daunting scale.” But because the reaction they have uncovered mimics a natural process so well, this breakthrough potentially could be a major advance in the development of a noncarbon, decentralized, readily available, cheap, and safe energy system.

Anthony A. Leiserowitz
Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies
Yale University
New Haven, CT

Open and Shut Case Studies
Christopher (Kit) Macleod, Kirsty L. Blackstock, and Phil M. Haygarth, “Mechanisms to Improve Integrative Research at the Science-Policy Interface for Sustainable Catchment Management,” Ecology and Society 13, no. 2 (2008): article 48

Sustainability fundamentally depends on robust science and well-informed policy. Yet experience has taught policymakers and researchers alike that the simple, unproblematic transformation of science into policy is the exception rather than the rule. Relationships between the world of research and the world of policymaking, regulation, and governance are often complex, convoluted, and by no means necessarily congenial.

Despite the importance of integrating science and policy more effectively, our understanding of how to improve relationships between scientists and decisionmakers is patchy. In a recent article in Ecology and Society, U.K.-based researchers Kit Macleod (of North Wyke Research), Kirsty Blackstock (of the Macaulay Institute), and Phil Haygarth (of the Centre for Sustainable Water Management) take some of the prevailing ideas about research-policy integration and assess how real-world applications can achieve more sustainable land and water management. They draw on their own research and policy experiences of two contrasting functions science can perform in relation to policy: opening up and closing down.

The opening-up function embraces a “range of expertise, value positions, and modes of thinking,” connecting researchers with policymakers and their broader constituencies to support consultation and deliberation processes. These aim to explore and debate new (or unresolved) issues, generate new options for action, and provide greater transparency of decisionmaking.

The closing-down function sees researchers evaluate and narrow those options to a limited set, or even a single recommendation for policymakers, allowing them to “cut through large amounts of often uncertain, complementary, or conflicting evidence.” This function supports decisionmaking by providing specific justifications for policy actions on identified issues. 

In this article, the authors examine a streamlined user manual that several scientists developed for Defra to inform policies regarding management of pollution from agricultural sources. They also look at the Integrating Water and Agricultural Management portal, a collaboration between North Wyke Research and Defra, as an effort to open up channels of communication between the scientific and policy communities through workshops, virtual forums, and an associated blog. While the tools themselves are interesting, Macleod and his colleagues more broadly demonstrate that paying attention to different policy contexts and roles researchers play in relation to land and water management can help scientists and policymakers build more flexible, adaptive research and action programs.

The simple theoretical concepts Macleod, Blackstock, and Haygarth present offer some guidance that can help researchers and policymakers negotiate more effectively and support each other to achieve better outcomes. A key part of understanding sustainability involves understanding the processes and mechanisms that can help all players work together, and this article provides insight on where to start.

Lorrae van Kerkhoff
Fenner School of Environment and Society
The Australian National University
Canberra, Australia

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