To Achieve A Sustainable Future, We Need to Include Early Career Professionals in Global Decision-Making

By Erin Satterthwaite and Alfredo Giron


A panel of early career professionals from the OceanObs'19 conference in September 2019. Co-author Erin Satterthwaite is second from the left. Credit: OceanObs'19 Conference.


Central to sustainable development is the vexing question of how we address the pressing needs of the present while sustaining essential resources for all future generations. The intergovernmental processes pursuing answers to this question are inherently complex, a milieu of diverse cultures and systems that are trying to make decisions at a global, long-term scale – and we argue these spaces are still missing the perspectives of the very generation they are working to protect: the next one.

The success of intergovernmental processes and institutions relies on the inclusion of early career professionals, so that they can develop the essential skills and relationships they will need to carry the torch into the future. Their involvement means the retention of valuable institutional knowledge, a greater sense of shared ownership and buy-in of the initiatives affecting their generation, and insurance that solutions are crafted with the innovation that comes with a diversity of perspectives around the table.   

Earlier this year, we had the amazing opportunity to attend the first planning meeting for the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, an intergovernmental framework to align the visions of the global ocean community and develop shared goals on the path toward sustainability. During this meeting, we noticed that the room was filled with mostly senior and mid-career people. We found ourselves asking, how can we have hope that the Ocean Decade’s goals will be met if we don’t include and empower self-identified early career professionals?

Our rationale for developing formal mechanisms that include early career professionals in global sustainability policy processes is multifaceted.

First, it takes time to learn, understand, and become integrated into complex global policy processes, as well as to develop the individual skills necessary to participate effectively.

Second, relationships and networks of people are key to these processes and also take time to develop, and waiting until mid-career to build the trust necessary for these relationships slows the process even more. This is especially important when developing connections across disciplines, sectors, and cultures, all of which will be important to effective, sustainable solutions.

Third, the sustainability of global policy processes relies on retaining institutional knowledge over time, and that requires transferring knowledge between people at different career stages.

Fourth, involving early career professionals from the beginning of a process allows for shared development and ownership, which means that people are more likely to feel invested in and willing to support the design, implementation, and adaptation of solutions over a long period of time, such as the entire Ocean Decade. This is particularly important since early career professionals will most likely be the ones carrying out the solutions.

Finally, diverse perspectives, such as those from younger, fresher minds that may be better able to think more “outside the box,” may be valuable sources of innovation. This visionary thinking, coupled with the experience and insight from those in later career stages, could help us to move from the status quo to the transformations needed to achieve long-term sustainability.

There are numerous ways that institutions can support early career professionals. The first step is understanding what may be hindering their inclusion. Their participation can then be formalized through the development of explicit platforms and mechanisms.

For example, we have been working with a small team of early career professionals who also attended that first planning meeting for the Ocean Decade, along with members of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and UNESCO, to earn a seat for an early career professional representative on the Ocean Decade’s Executive Planning Group. We are also creating a task team to pursue other strategies to involve more early career professionals throughout the phases of the Ocean Decade.

In addition, since these large-scale governing systems are interconnected and complex, early career professionals may need guidance to understand who are the key people, what are the processes, how to engage, and why is it important to participate. To achieve this, we have been working on developing workshops to bring early career professionals together and train them on what the Ocean Decade is and how they can start to integrate their existing work into the coordinating framework.

We hope these activities will not only help create formal pathways for including the voices of early career professionals in global decision-making for ocean sustainability, but also contribute to the development of a community that is trained to engage and propose ideas that will help these efforts achieve their goals. Only by including the diverse voices of the next generation of leaders can we create a global ocean community that can generate solutions that will be truly resilient and sustainable.

Erin Satterthwaite and Alfredo Giron are both postdoctoral scholars at NCEAS and Future Earth. Satterthwaite is a marine ecologist who works at the interface of applied marine research, policy engagement, and science communication to advance ocean conservation for sustainable development. Giron’s research focuses on understanding the factors that drive poverty in fishing communities.

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Posted on November 19, 2019