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Scientists around the world are being challenged to find the most pressing research questions linked to global environmental change in the next decade.

Everyone is invited to participate in the online research project, particularly researchers early in their careers and those with an interest in Earth sciences and the environment.

The consultation, which is run by the France-based International Council for Science (ICSU) in cooperation with the International Social Science Council, has a closing date of 15 August.

Participants in the 'Earth System Visioning' project are asked to identify the most important research questions and vote on the contributions of others in a bid to shape the research agenda in Earth systems research.

The most pressing research questions today are quite different to those that guided Earth sciences in the past few decades, such as determining trends in natural and human-induced climate change, and exploring how those changes will affect both Earth systems and human well-being, says ICSU.

We now need to understand the complex relationships between different Earth systems — such as the relationship between the climate and social systems — and must mitigate and adapt to climate change, say Walter Reid, Catherine Bréchignac and Yuan Tseh Lee of ICSU in an editorial in Science.

ICSU hopes to harness the potential of communication technologies to use "the widest possible net" to capture the opinion of geographically-dispersed scientists across a wide range of disciplines, they add. It wants as many people as possible to help shape the relevance of the outcomes, so the results belong to the broader international community.

"We want a well-rounded global perspective from across the breadth of science. We are also encouraging early-career researchers to participate — they will play an important role in shaping Earth systems research over the coming decades," Reid told SciDev.Net.

Leah Goldfarb, science officer for environment and sustainable development at ICSU, says the month-long online consultation is a new research model for ICSU and is the first part of a three-step programme aimed at creating a coordinated response to global environmental change and human well-being.

At a workshop in September or October, the results from the online consultation — the questions and their relative ranking — will be synthesised into a draft research strategy, which will be open to comment on the ICSU website. The workshop will involve 16 early-career scientists and several leading global-change researchers.

A further meeting will be held around May 2010 to finalise the document and a final research strategy proposal is expected to be completed later in the year. "With those research priorities in hand, the May 2010 meeting will seek to determine how the global-change research programs should go about answering the questions," says Reid.