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 ultimate goal of improving health and yet its practices and procedures contribute to one of the greatest health challenges of today: the environmental crisis.

The environmental impact of health research varies across different disciplines and research types. Within life sciences and medicine, laboratory research has a particularly strong impact on the environment due to the high level of energy consumption, the production of plastic waste, and the carbon emissions caused by the manufacturing, distribution and use of reagents, chemicals, materials and equipment. Clinical trials have also been widely associated with carbon emissions due to travel of researchers and research participants, as well as energy use in research premises.

With the accelerating developments of information technologies, data-driven approaches to health research such as big data and artificial intelligence are spreading across the field, bringing with them exciting opportunities but also new environmental challenges. Generating and processing large amounts of data consumes significant amounts of energy, as well as adverse environmental impacts such as extraction of resources for technological components and disposal of electronics.

Combating the climate crisis and other environmental challenges is placed high on the public agenda, therefore incorporating environmental sustainability into research practices will be increasingly important for research organisations to position themselves as trustworthy and responsible. Wellcome has placed environmental sustainability as central to its strategy and as a global funder it has the opportunity to drive change internationally in the way health research is conducted and the impacts that it has.

How are we helping?

RAND Europe has been commissioned by Wellcome to map the existing tools and methods that aim to measure and/or improve the environmental sustainability of health research and assess how these can be used and incorporated into Wellcome processes and decision-making. Specifically, the study is using a mixed methods approach to address the following four objectives:

  1. Landscape the existing tools and methods being utilised to measure and improve the environmental sustainability of health research.
  2. Understand how Wellcome might use those tools and methods and what the implications of their use might be.
  3. Make recommendations on whether there is a role for Wellcome to fund work that will be beneficial to the field in a manner that aligns with their strategic goals.
  4. Drive engagement in this space by identifying like-minded actors and producing a high-quality public facing report of the results of this work.

The study is currently at an early stage, having conducted some initial scoping and now starting work on objective 1, landscape existing tools and methods through a review of literature and documentation and a crowdsourcing exercise. We aim to complete the study as a whole by summer 2023.