As a research funder, it is important for us to consider the environmental impact of the research we fund. We will continue to update this page as we develop our activities, guidance and policies related to the environmental sustainability of research.
Advancing environmentally sustainable health research
This report by RAND Europe outlines the current state of initiatives aimed at reducing the environmental impact of health research. 146 tools and initiatives were identified, many of which are being driven by the voluntary efforts of concerned researchers.
What do we mean when we say ‘research sustainability’?
This report speaks to the environmental sustainability of research, using ‘research sustainability’ as a shorthand. For research to be sustainable, it needs to be conducted in a way that protects the environment. This includes reducing CO2 emissions associated with research practices, utilising natural resources at a pace that allows their regeneration and limiting waste (Samuel et al., 2022).
A more complete definition of research sustainability should also include economic considerations (for instance, research that is financially supported into the future) and social considerations (for example, research that is inclusive in design and practice).
Introduction to the report
The health research we fund has an impact on the environment and can contribute to climate change. Clinical research alone is estimated to be responsible for the equivalent of 100 million tonnes of CO2 emissions each year – comparable to the 40th largest emitting country in the world (Luck & Farley, 2023). A degraded ecosystem and a climate in crisis are not environments in which science or health can thrive.
Wellcome commissioned and worked with RAND Europe to identify existing tools and methods being used to measure and reduce the environmental impacts of health research.
The report also addresses how actors across the research sector might use these initiatives. Wellcome knows that many scientific researchers, including those that we fund, are deeply concerned about the environmental impact of their work. We hope that by sharing these findings, we can highlight existing tools and methods that can be used across the health research sector, and drive action in research sustainability.
Different types of research affect the environment in different ways.
- Wet labs tend to be energy hungry (EPA, 2008). On average research in a biosciences lab is estimated to be nearly three times that of a similarly sized office (RSC, 2022). They also produce large amounts of plastic waste – one researcher in a bioscience lab is estimated to generate just under one ton of plastic waste per year (Urbina, 2015).
- Data driven computational health research uses lots of energy to store data and train models, which is linked to significant carbon emissions (Lannelongue, 2023). Additionally, unsustainable mining practices and e-waste disposal impact the environment throughout the lifecycle of research hardware used daily (Samuel & Lucassen, 2022).
- Clinical trial carbon emissions are associated with energy consumed in their coordinating centers, in addition to trial related travel, material distributions and delivery (BMJ, 2007).
- Social sciences often owe their largest carbon emissions to fieldwork related travel (ALLEA, 2022).
From researcher to funder, the findings and recommendations outlined in this report can help guide the entire health research sector to be more environmentally sustainable.
Desk research, crowdsourcing and case studies were used to create a map of currently available sustainable health research initiatives.
Focus groups with Wellcome grant holders and non-researcher stakeholders were also conducted to understand the actions that funders like Wellcome can take to encourage sustainable health research.
This study, whilst comprehensive, is not exhaustive in its coverage and should be considered a starting point for further work on the topic.
This review identified 146 tools and initiatives focused on reducing the environmental impact of health research:
- 74 cross-cutting initiatives
- 51 lab-based initiatives
- 18 computational research initiatives
- 3 initiatives targeting research in clinical settings.
The review did not identify any tools or initiatives for qualitative research.
Cross-cutting initiatives are defined as research-related activities, including conferences and publishing, that occur across all categories.
Current guidance at a glance:
- Many guidelines on how to conduct sustainable research already exist. Lots of which were developed by research funders.
- Many sustainability considerations are in alignment with other priority areas in the research system, such as reproducibility, open science and the wider research culture agenda.
- Wet labs are the only area for which standards and certificate programs exist to assess the environmental sustainability of research conducted. Currently, no research funders require participation in these initiatives. Though, the UK Medical Research Council has encouraged its facilities to achieve the Gold level of LEAF by 2025 and the National Environmental Research Council has required LEAF to be implemented internally.
- Strong networks in high-income countries exist to support sustainable research in wet labs. However, no similar networks were identified for computational research, clinical settings or qualitative research. And no relevant networks were found in low- or middle-income settings.
- Only 27 of the identified initiatives have been evaluated and more research is needed to define the tools and initiatives that are most effective in reducing the environmental footprint of research.
The identified list of initiatives is not exhaustive. We recognise potential shortcomings in our research methods and acknowledge this likely led us to not find every initiative and tool in our scoping. However, we hope that this report is a useful first step in bringing together this field.
We hope this report allows actors across the health research sector to identify existing tools and initiatives that may help to address the environmental impact of their work.
While the report identifies many initiatives, there remain several gaps that need to be addressed:
- There remain gaps in our knowledge on the sustainability of health research equipment and practices, how to measure carbon emissions in various forms of health research in diverse settings and the major origins of carbon emissions across the health research system.
- Existing and new tools and initiatives need to be evaluated to identify those that can most effectively measure and manage health related environmental impacts.
- Skills in sustainable research practices needs to be more widely developed so that this expertise is more widely accessible. Upskilling research practitioners, including laboratory technicians and research software engineers, who work across multiple research projects could build the required expertise at scale.
- Wider research system actors, including universities, journals and funders, need to match researcher efforts to advance environmentally sustainable research. A coordinated approach is necessary to reduce the risk of duplication and limit burden on individual researchers.