I am a science nerd. I love data, research, and learning about the research scientists who creatively contribute to our understanding of our world. So I dove in when the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society and a leading publisher of cutting-edge research, held its annual meeting in Seattle this month. – Renee Gastineau

Making a Step Change in Sustainability Science

The academic field of sustainability science is one of the fastest-growing in the global research community, expanding at twice the rate of scientific research in general. Sustainability science research is multi-disciplinary and brings together researchers from all areas – including basic research, social sciences, economics, business, and health – that touch climate change and society’s ability to understand our surroundings and develop solutions. Sustainability science themes include studying complex systems, adaptations, and resilience to climate change, and governance and measurements of the outcomes.

Trends in Sustainability Science
CAGR and FWCI of research output; for the world; per theme for sustainability science for the period 2009- 2013. Source

Note the Partnership bubble in the graphic above, which represents the transdisciplinary practice within the Sustainability Science field. This graphic is based on data dating 2009-2013 and may give a sense of the potential that this channel holds.

The field of sustainability science is growing, and there is still much to be done to achieve the rapid shift to more sustainable societies, according to the participants in the recent AAAS conference panel titled The Future of Sustainability Science in the United States. Here are three things that these leaders are calling for:

1. More funding; transdisciplinary teams

According to Pamela Matson of Stanford University, funding for sustainability science is lacking in the United States compared to other nations. In addition, we need to step outside the traditional structures of research institutions and business. Sustainability science has done well with interdisciplinary partnerships linking across research areas. However transdisciplinary work outside academia and research networks to include business, policy, social systems, and communities needs more attention and nurturing.

Sustainability Science interdisciplinary

Matson sees opportunities in boundary-spanning work that is defined by the problems it addresses rather than the disciplines it employs. For example, much scientific research attention has focused on developing new renewable energy resources using chemistry, physics, and engineering solutions. Sustainability science focuses on the systems and interface of the technology with the environment and social systems that will deploy clean energy at scale to the world’s poorest people. A simple way to put it is that much scientific research addresses the efficiency and materials used in solar technology. Sustainability science looks across disciplines to consider the technology, the locations where it can be deployed, the impacts on the communities and the economics of delivering clean energy to everyone.

Matson advocates for inviting the public into the research to break down the barriers between academia and local and regional communities which will build trust and provide an authentic voice to the proposed solutions to climate change. She pointed to the University of Washington Earthlab program as an example of a “front porch” to the academic environment that can help fill the gap between research, business, policy, and underserved communities. Several academic institutions are also designing campus buildings, such as the Tata Innovation Center at Cornell University and the Center for Advanced Materials and Clean Energy Technologies (CAMCET) at UW with the goal of developing physical spaces that invite researchers and other stakeholders to work together alongside each other. .

2. Incorporate local knowledge, culture, and history

In academic research, much effort is focused on making conclusions from large data sets. In sustainability science, local data and understanding of specific communities is a necessary focus. Broadening the field of sustainability scholarship to include local, diverse communities is the focus of Michael Méndez from the University of California, Irvine

Growing up in a low-income community in Los Angeles, Méndez witnessed people suffering from asthma and saw areas were science failed to document the effects in those poor communities. Méndez is challenging embodied perspectives in the academic community and building consensus in regulatory science to protect underserved communities. He would like to see global science policies that reflect local communities and focuses on outcomes like public health and community well-being. To do this we may sacrifice expediency – program urgency often leaves out local communities and the time it takes to understand the impacts. He also advocates for cap and trade revenue to be invested in environmental justice causes for local communities to link carbon emissions reductions to the frontline communities that are impacted.

Sustainability Science Michael Mendez

3. Science-based targets, systems approaches

Former Secretary of Interior and current interim CEO of The Nature Conservancy, Sally Jewell, spoke from the perspective of the scientific research end-user. How do businesses, governments, and NGOs use academic research to engineer sustainability solutions that impact real-world problems?

As CEO of REI, Jewell came to realize that if she didn’t know what her own environmental footprint was in the work, she is being a hypocrite. REI customers, who are also shareholders of the co-op, wanted to know what REI’s leadership was doing to address sustainability. To build a plan Jewell brought together 23 people from positions inside the organization who could pull levers, set policies, and organize systems. Together they settled on five areas where they could make an impact: energy, buildings, forest products (reducing catalogues), waste stream, and product stewardship.

Jewell points out that the more you work on sustainability the more complications and the more interdependence you find. She says the academic and research community helps businesses understand that complexity, and for example, help design a product that can end up in a landfill and make it a cradle-to-cradle product. Academia is also the space where companies can find tools, such as artificial intelligence and satellite data collection, that can inform decisions that build confidence that the sustainability measure they invest in will work. Jewell also advocates for science-based targets and ESG reporting among corporations so that benchmarks, goals, and collaborations are more transparent.

Sustainability Science Sally Jewell

The message to the scientific community from this panel was clear: a multidirectional flow of information is necessary to successfully address climate change. Inviting the public into the scientific discussion and problem-solving leads to careful consideration to account for all dimensions of the problem. Just like our work at Paladino and Company brings together owners, engineers, architects, designers, users, customers, and communities – sustainability science must also be transdisciplinary.

Visit these resources to learn more about the field of sustainability science:

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