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[RIO DE JANEIRO] More nuanced research into population growth, and the consolidation of existing knowledge, is needed to provide a clearer understanding of the impact of demographics on sustainable development, a conference has heard.

To make this happen, there are three key priorities, according to Lori M. Hunter, associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, United States.

These, she told the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development underway in Brazil (11–15 June), are: more research
funding; a project that would bring disparate research undertakings together; and training for scientists so that they can communicate knowledge and affect policy.

"[We need to] get away from the scary seven billion," Hunter told SciDev.Net, referring to the world's current population. "If you really … want to reduce that population pressure, we need to think about 'why' and 'where' and 'what'."

"The issue of demographics matters, and plays out differently at local scales."

For example, environmental scarcity, such as a lack of privately owned farmland, has divergent effects on fertility rates in different areas — boosting rates in Nepal, while decreasing them in Kenya, she said. And while a great deal of related social science research has been done, it is underutilised, Hunter said.

In addition, surprising findings are still emerging to challenge commonly held assumptions that feed
media narratives on certain issues and affect public and policy opinions.

For example, in relation to human migration, a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April found that
natural disasters in Bangladesh caused smaller and shorter migrations than had been widely assumed.

"We know a lot about the way environmental factors shape migration. Before rushing out to do new research, it would make sense to pull together what we already know and ask really informed questions," Hunter said.

She said big research programmes such as Future Earth — an International Council for Science (ICSU) flagship global research programme, announced at the Planet Under Pressure conference in London this year (26–29 March), and to be officially launched this week — should ensure they take stock of existing knowledge before embarking on expensive new research.

There has been a "quite consistent upward trend" in research output on population dynamics over the past decade, the meeting heard from Susana B. Adamo, associate research scientist at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network, Columbia University, United States.

Read SciDev.Net's blog from the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development.

This article is part of our news coverage of the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development. Read more in our live blog.