Scientists have long observed the ways that human activity has stressed the environment and the health of thousands of plant and animal species. Humans, as longtime residents of the environment, are not exempt from such concerns.
But most of the popular media coverage about human health and its hazards involves personal habits and conditions: what we eat, drink or smoke, our genes, or exposure to infectious disease. Less explored are the ways that the changing planetary environment and ecosystems are affecting global food and water supplies, the spread of diseases, and other fundamental factors in our lives.
Now the Wellcome Trust is taking a big step to build needed data about the environment-health connection. The UK-based foundation recently announced a $116 million, five-year initiative, part of its "Our Planet, Our Health" program, to fund scientific studies about the physical world and human well-being.
"The health of the global population and the planet are inextricably linked, but there is a poor ecological fit between what we are asking of the planet and its resilience," said Wellcome. "If the complex natural systems we rely on for clean air, fresh water, fertile soil, biodiversity and a stable climate are threatened, so too is our health. The challenge is to secure the health and well-being of present and future generations whilst responsibly stewarding the planet."
The environmental-health initiative is calling for scientifically rigorous research proposals that will focus on challenges associated with the global food system or urbanization. It will fund selected projects up to $3.1 million for a maximum of five years. It's seeking to fund projects that will build evidence about the impact of humans on ecosystems, and generate data that can help people and governments make informed decisions to safeguard human and planetary health.
The program has already funded 10 pilot projects that are examining the global food system, urban environments, and environmental changes. Funded pilot projects include a study of the effects of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami on survivors and their children; research into the potential of duckweed as a new source of protein; and a project that will track seasonal migrants in Namibia, Kenya, Rwanda, Cote d'Ivoire, and Senegal via their mobile phones, and map the movement of populations against patterns of disease.
We have written before about the Wellcome Trust's philanthropy and its focus on global health. We've also reported extensively on giving by its U.S.-based cousin, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, which supports biomedical research. The Wellcome Trust addresses a broader range of research and initiatives in science, technology and social sciences as they relate to medicine and health.
Groups like the World Health Organization have been talking about the relationship between planetary concerns like climate change and human health for years. Unfortunately, the topic tends to be emotionally and politically loaded—at least, in the U.S. The Wellcome Trust's initiative is a much-needed opportunity to contribute accurate data and evidence-based solutions.
But with human population currently at 7.3 billion (and growing), industrial and agricultural activity will continue to increase. The climate and biosphere, already transformed, will continue to change, and the pressures on human health will only increase. So even Wellcome's substantial $116 million initiative is only a start.