Sustainability science is a new academic discipline. But is it sustainable?



In 2007, the American Association for the Advancement of Science counted 32 sustainability science programs at colleges and universities in the United States. Today, there are 118.

Universities across the country are increasingly buying into the idea of sustainability science as an academic discipline, and like many of my fellow academics, I consider it to be academia’s saving grace.

This new discipline was founded upon the idea that scientific research and education should do more to understand and solve our world’s complex problems. This would allow science to better fulfill its unwritten contract with society, a contract that requires academics to provide solutions to our most pressing problems: climate change, poverty, conflict, etc, in exchange for continued support from tax payers and policymakers.

As a sustainability scientist, I am often pressed by policymakers and colleagues to explain how my research and teaching breaks from existing academic paradigms to better address these pressing problems.

My response has become what I call my “sustainability science elevator speech,” which I’ve developed to explain my life’s pursuit. But the question that has been bothering me of late is, does it have substance?

My elevator pitch

My speech always takes some form of the following:

Sustainability science provides academics with the necessary lens through which we can view the complexity of our real-world systems. It allows us to develop transformative solutions to deeply ingrained, wicked problems like poverty and conflict using “complex-adaptive systems” theory and “stakeholder involvement” to overcome the inherent complexity that exists in our world.

This complex language shows how this response deliberately lacks substance.

It promises solutions to our most pressing problems while shedding responsibility by hiding behind its dense prose. It was subconsciously designed to confuse the interested, hopeful individuals who acknowledge the need for a new type of science to solve our most pressing problems.

This realization was unsettling. I wrote this essay to force myself to confront my superficial beliefs and determine the reasons I was subconsciously undermining the charge to which I’d committed myself.

My reflections

And here are my reasons:

Sustainability has gained traction in science over the last decade as the idea that scientists should better address complex real-world problems throughout the design and implementation of experiments.

This is reflected in the requirements of federal funding agencies and by university mandates that require research to be applicable to practical issues. In the UK, for instance, impact evaluations are now required for federally funded social science research. Impact evaluations measure the contribution of an experiment to society and the economy.

As policymakers increasingly label academic research as irrelevant to society, the need for this new type of science becomes apparent. We must begin to show policymakers and the public that taxpayer money is being spent on research that benefits them.

But the difficulty begins when scientists try to design research projects with the ultimate goal of solving complex real-world problems. I will clarify.

We use the word “complex,” or “wicked,” to distinguish sustainability research problems from research designed to solve simple problems.

My use of the word “simple” should not be taken as an insult. I am describing the problem, not the solution. The entire engineering discipline has evolved to solve simple problems, although the solutions to these problems are often quite complex.

For example, if an individual would like to cross to the opposite side of a river, the problem is simple, but the solution may take the form of a complex public-infrastructure project.

Science is not linking the pieces


Traditional scientists incrementally build upon other scientists’ research to answer increasingly specific questions. Complex, uncertain parts of our world are reduced to simpler ones and then studied.

For example, to study ecosystems, scientists often divide them into types of plants. Then, each plant can be explained by its chemical makeup; its chemical makeup can be explained by its atomic properties. We add up all the pieces and think we understand the whole.

As a result, we now know much about how the pieces of our world function in isolation, but not about how they relate to one another.

This is the cycle of science. This is the reason that science has become so specialized and seemingly arbitrary in the eyes of policymakers. Traditional science has not yet linked these pieces in ways that are useful for policymakers attempting to address our complex problems.

So, the charge of sustainability science is justified, but the problem arises as we try to embrace our world’s complexity by avoiding the well-established cycle of science.

We become lost in the complexity of the problem. We do not know what questions to ask or what hypotheses to test.

For solutions to complex problems

Academics working in this new discipline are aware of this paradox, and some are increasingly critical of sustainability science for this reason. But sustainability science must address this paradox to be sustainable.

While I cannot provide a roadmap to universities and department heads interested in sustainability science, I do believe the following three points should be considered.

First, sustainability science programs must be interdisciplinary in order to increase the scope of its research capabilities. This is easier said than done – tradition is very important in academia.

Second, sustainability science research must be applicable to real-world problems while contributing to discovery-based science. Again, this is a difficult line to walk, but sustainability science must not become pigeonholed because solutions to complex problems will likely be innovative.

Finally, sustainability science must be integrated into society. We cannot begin to solve complex problems without working with the people most impacted by them.

The myopic perspective resulting from science practiced in isolation cannot provide useful solutions to complex problems.

Author Bio:Benjamin P Warner is Postdoctoral Development Geographer, University of Massachusetts Amherst