AAAS Day 3: Saturday 17 Feb 2007

Given the inherent multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary nature of sustainability, AAAS believes it is well positioned to catalyse such discussions among scientists, social scientists and engineers. This is part of a broader effort within AAAS to develop a diverse community of researchers addressing critical questions at the nexus of environment, international development and societal interactions.

To meet these needs, AAAS hosted a roundtable meeting to bring together a community of scholars and practitioners of sustainability active in academia. The session included a review of the results of a global survey of emerging Sustainability Science programmes. The STEPS Centre was one of 49 institutions around the world that responded to the AAAS survey of new university-based Sustainability Science programmes. The survey and roundtable are part of an ongoing effort by AAAS to create a forum for sharing experiences and identify how the University based programmes might develop and interact, not only in the US but globally.

This roundtable, which was convened by Vaughan Turekian, Chief International Officer of AAAS and chaired by the inimitable Bill Clark of Harvard, highlighted how international policy makers as well as local and regional decision makers are confronted with challenges associated with (un)sustainability. The science and engineering communities are undertaking practical, place-based research to provide decision-support for addressing the sustainability challenge. At this time, however, there is little coherence or consistency in the development of this new field of Sustainability Science across institutions and international borders. Universities are helping to lead the way in developing both research programmes and curricula and can further the field by exchanging information and experiences about these programmes. But it is clear that institutions around the world are at different levels of developing Sustainability Science programmes, ranging from some that are well established and funded to others that are just being conceived and established, such as the ESRC-supported STEPS Centre. All of these programmes have faced, or are facing, challenges and barriers to success. The purpose of the roundtable was to share experience on challenges, opportunities and prospects for collaboration to promote the large-scale development of this field.

To kick off proceedings, colleagues from AAAS presented some fascinating insights from their survey:
· Over 25% (14 out of 49) programmes are based in or associated with engineering faculties
· 33% are from international programmes – but only 2 centres (including STEPS) has a focus on international development – a shockingly low figure and one I will return to below
· 4,700 students are enrolled in these programmes, many at post-graduate levels
· 6 out of 49 programmes mention “sustainability science” in their title
· All emphasise nature-society / human-environment interactions
· All describe some aspect of policy-focused research
· Many stress a strong need for community engagement

The programmes put forward 14 challenges, some of which are slightly overlapping, but worth mentioning here:
1. Curriculum design
2. Rewarding faculty (incentives for cross-disciplinary collaboration, etc.)
3. Working across academic units
4. Funding
5. Applied vs. basic research – getting the balance right
6. Attracting students
7. Quality of researchers
8. Institutional structure – to facilitate cross-disciplinary work
9. Creating public-private partnerships
10. Defining “sustainability science”
11. Career tracks – relates back to point 2 and others above
12. Core methods
13. Projects and research
14. Evolution – providing support structure for students and researchers while being flexible as the field evolves

Participants in the roundtable were asked to “vote” for their 4 top challenges to serve as a focus for our discussions. We chose 1, 10, 13 and combined 3 and 8 above.

We kicked of the discussion on whether there was a real need for defining Sustainability Science at this stage. Many argued this should be kept as simple as possible and Pam Matson suggested using the broad definition she used in her talk in the “Grand Challenges” session earlier in the day:
1. Meeting the needs of people today and in future
2. Sustaining the life support systems of the planet

Others emphasised the challenge of moving from “curiosity-driven science” to “mission-driven science” or “use-inspired basic research” (which involved key stakeholders in the research process).

Bill Clark summarised the exchange by observing that Sustainability Science is not a science, but a “set of practices” and emerging framework. There is a commitment to be problem driven – “bringing Science and Technolology to bear on problems out there.”

Near the end of the discussion, I observed that while AAAS should be commend for its efforts to conduct this useful stock-taking of Sustainability Science programmes, it was striking to note that all but one of the respondents were based in the OECD (US, EU, Japan and Australia) and only two mentioned an explicit focus on international development issues. I urged the AAAS to seek out new initiatives in Africa, Asia and Latin America and double the number of programmes in next year’s survey. Moreover, I called on my colleagues to consider ways that their universities and institutes could establish long-term partnerships with like-minding programmes in the South, to help strengthen their capacity and undertake collaborative research that crosses geographic as well as disciplinary boundaries. Just as John Holdren asked each of us as individual scientists to tithe 10% of our professional time to working to increase the benefits of science and technology for the human condition and to decrease the liabilities, I suggested our respective programmes should consider a similar arrangement for supporting our Southern partners to become centres of excellence on Sustainability Science.

Clark wryly commented, “Well, I don’t think I can top that challenge, so I think we’ll bring this session to a close.”

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