Advancing environmentally sustainable health research

Doctor with gloved hands holding a floating earth, photo by Treeha/Adobe Stock

Treecha/Adobe Stock

What is the issue?

Health research is conducted with the goal of improving global health; however, its practices and procedures contribute to one of the greatest health challenges of today: the climate crisis.

For example, one researcher working in a bioscience lab is estimated to generate just under one ton of plastic waste in a year. Laboratory research also requires high levels of energy consumption, and the median energy usage of laboratories has been calculated to be nearly three times that of a similarly sized office.

How did we help?

RAND Europe was commissioned by Wellcome to explore the landscape of existing initiatives being used to improve the environmental sustainability of health research and determine what is needed to support their development.

What did we find?

We categorised the 146 initiatives found into 8 groups, reflecting their overarching approach:

  1. Networks
  2. Campaigns
  3. Measurement or efficiency tools
  4. Guidelines
  5. Education programmes
  6. Standards or certifications
  7. Funding schemes
  8. Service providers

Most of these initiatives are for lab-based research. There seems to be a stronger community in this area from the activity we noticed occurring both at present, and in the past. Activity is growing in computational research. Most measurement or efficiency tools assess computational research and aim to help calculate carbon emissions; these tools are frameworks and calculators that try to determine the carbon footprint of different types of computational models. There are almost no initiatives for clinical research and zero for qualitative research.

Most initiatives can be used in high-income countries (HICs), and the remaining are global barring one (though global initiatives seemed to be mainly implemented in practice in HICs). We could not find evidence of tailoring towards and usage of global initiatives in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

What can be done?

Increase funding for research in the area

There has been limited investment in evidence generation so far. More research needs to be conducted in the following areas:

  • Data for measurement or efficiency tools to enable accurate estimates (e.g. current measurement systems struggle to calculate the carbon intensity of electricity production, which can vary significantly depending on the location of a data centre)
  • High-quality evaluations of existing initiatives to assess their effectiveness in improving sustainability, thereby detecting low-quality initiatives/greenwashing.
  • Uptake of existing tools within HICs and LMICs.
  • More standards for clinical settings and qualitative research, the latter of which could have much in common with other subject areas beyond health.

Build coordination at the system-level among key players

This is needed to limit profusion of different standards/requirements and signal the importance of sustainability to drive progress. To date, most action has taken place at a grassroots level. This coordination must occur internationally due to the global nature of research.

Create a central repository of knowledge regarding current practice

The table of initiatives accompanying the report provides a starting point and we have also noticed other sets of resources beginning to be compiled. Creating a central location for this information will help increase awareness and uptake of existing initiatives.

When pursuing these goals, equity also needs to be considered to ensure that institutions with fewer resources can participate effectively in sustainability initiatives. Expectations regarding sustainability practices should accommodate different contexts.

See the report for a full list of recommendations