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 should do more to understand and solve society’s most complex problems. This would allow science to better fulfill its unwritten contract with society, a contract that requires academics to provide solutions to society’s 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 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.
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 social and environmental problems like poverty and conflict using complex-adaptive systems theory and stakeholder involvement to overcome the inherent complexity that exists in our society.”
This response deliberately lacks substance. It was subconsciously designed to confuse the interested, hopeful individuals who acknowledge the need for a new type of science to succeed where others have failed. 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. The results of my reflection are presented here. As with such reflections, my conclusions are not definitive, nor should they be used to justify next steps. Rather, I hope they will inform policymakers’ and universities’ efforts as they grapple with this emerging discipline.
Sustainability has gained traction in science over the last decade as the idea that scientists should better address 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. Politicians and the media increasingly point out the need for this new type of science, which has rightfully led to increased public scrutiny of existing academic programs. 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 to distinguish sustainability scientists from scientists who solve simple problems. My use of the word ‘simple’ should not be taken lightly, as 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. 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.
Traditional scientists incrementally build upon other scientists’ research to answer increasingly specific questions. Reductionist methods are employed that allow scientists to answer these questions, and we now know much about how the pieces of our society function in isolation. This is the cycle of science, and this is the reason why science has become so specialized and seemingly arbitrary in the eyes of the public. Traditional science has not yet linked these pieces in ways that are useful for policymakers attempting to address society’s complex problems. So, the charge of sustainability science is justified, but the problem arises as we try to embrace society’s complexity by avoiding well-established reductionist methods. We become lost in the complexity of the problem. We do not know what questions to ask or what hypotheses to test. Academics working in this new discipline are aware of this paradox, and some are increasingly critical of sustainability science for this reason. It is perhaps because of this paradox that I designed my elevator speech with a subconscious aim to alienate and confuse other hopeful scientists seeking both understanding and inspiration.
Sustainability science must address this paradox to be sustainable, and 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. The myopic perspective resulting from academics practiced in isolation cannot provide useful solutions to complex problems.