Sustainability Science: An Emerging Interdisciplinary Frontier

Sustainability. Integration. Interdisciplinary. These are the three words that stood out from Prof William C. Clark’s Rachel Carson Distinguished Lecture at MSU on Thursday and reflect the research we do at the the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.

Prof Clark discussed the recent emergence of ‘Sustainability Science’ as a field that is use-inspired (like health science or agricultural science), that is defined by the practical problems it addresses, that is focused on the scientific understanding of coupled human and natural systems (CHANS), and that integrates knowledge and research from multiple disciplines.

The definition of ‘sustainability’ has always been a tricky one – in part Clark suggested because it is a concept that is as broad as concepts such as ‘freedom’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’. What sustainability means depends on who is using the word and the context of the problem in which it is being used. Because sustainability science is use-inspired, what is to be sustained is defined by the the problem or issue being addressed. In one situation the objective might be examine how best to sustain a community’s cultural and social well-being, in another it might be the continuation of the life-supporting functions of an ecosystem, and in yet another it might the continued growth of the economy and the material well-being that affords. An idealist might argue that the objective should be to sustain all three examples, but in reality priorities will often need to be drawn up.

Clark used Stoke’s (1997) presentation of the four quadrants of the reasons to undertake research, highlighting that sustainability science falls into Pasteur’s Quadrant. Research in sustainability science is driven by both a quest for fundamental understanding and the consideration of the use to which the research will be put in the real world. Research with the goal of the former alone might be termed ‘Basic Research’ (e.g. physics – Bohr’s Quadrant), whereas the latter might be termed ‘Applied Research’ (e.g. engineering – Edison’s Quadrant). Through time, research in Pasteur’s Quadrant often results in a dialogue between the basic and the applied sciences, as demonstrated below.


The characterisation of sustainability science highlights that the domain of sustainability science is geo-historical. Place and history are important in defining both the problem to be examined and the solutions we might suggest. Prof Clark highlighted this, noting that a good knowledge of the environmental history of the location under study is important, and that such a history can be used in some ways as a laboratory provides data. But equally we need to remember that this history can be framed or contextualised itself – the narrative of an environmental history is unlikely to provide data that is as ‘objective’ as would be produced in a biology lab say.

Furthermore, the nature of geo-historical systems highlights the problems associated with a science that tries to be both applied and basic. How do we take use the knowledge gained from a given study to inform wider policy and decision making? Critics can argue that ‘it only happens in this particular place’, whereas advocates can argue that ‘it happens like this everywhere’. A balance between these stances will need to be struck. Multiple examples of processes, treatments, and outcomes in different places might be one way to approach this balance. Given that real-world systems are context-dependent, and that the problems sustainability science will study are value-laden, a certain level of subjectivity probably isn’t such a big deal anyway. The development of nomothetic generalizations in the same vein as the hard sciences may not be possible. However this situation, which implies uncertainty, will need to be acknowledged and understood by decision-makers.

Clark also discussed the ‘lessons for designing university-based knowledge systems for sustainability’. An article in the current issue of Futures highlights the issues faced by university departments and researchers wishing to perform sustainability science:

“The art of problem-based interdisciplinarity lies in the choice of problems that will be both academically and socially fruitful. Too heavy emphasis on the former leads to research that may successfully address problems within a particular field of study and make a contribution to the literature but that are of limited value or interest beyond the academy. Too much emphasis on the latter leads to work that is indistinguishable from consulting or pure advocacy work. Being problem-driven means starting from a problem or concern in society, but, in order to create the hybrid activity described above, this problem must be translated into a form that is amenable to issue-driven interdisciplinary research. Such translation is an indispensable prerequisite to obtaining funding from academic funding agencies and buy-in from academic collaborators, who have to be able to undertake research that will lead to publications in the outlets in which they need to publish in order to further their career prospects.”


To develop successfully Prof Clark suggested that the academy will need to maintain and engage strength in the foundation disciplines, support focused programs of ‘use-inspired basic research’ on core questions of sustainability science, build collaborative problem-solving programs, and create recognition and reward systems for those who develop and participate in such programs. The ‘publish or perish’ mantra also demands that there be suitable outlets for sustainability science research – the creation of the Sustainability Science section in PNAS is an indication that the importance, and uniqueness, of this emerging interdisciplinary field of study is becoming increasingly recognised.

There was so much more said and discussed during Prof Clark’s visit to MSU but that’s enough here for now. A copy of the powerpoint presentation used during the lecture can be downloaded from the CSIS website.

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