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Making Progress in Sustainability May Require a Culture Shift In Science and Academia

team at a table with mini windmills on it
Progress in sustainability research depends on better teamwork and interdisciplinary research, argues a new commentary. Photo: Pexels

Our culture tends to glorify the lone scientist working tirelessly in his lab to discover an important vaccine, and the mathematician who single-handedly saves the American space program. Fewer movies get made about large scientific teams. Along the same lines, a researcher’s quality—and job future—is often judged by her own individual contributions to knowledge.

“The way it’s often explained to junior faculty, is: You have to hit a home run. You have to hit a home run,” explains Patricia Culligan, an urban sustainability researcher in Columbia Engineering and a faculty member of the Earth Institute. “A team doesn’t get tenure at a university, and a team doesn’t get promoted.”

This focus on individual contributions has led to many important breakthroughs, but now it is holding back progress in sustainability by pushing researchers into siloes and valuing discoveries more than practical applications, argues a new commentary published in Nature Sustainability. Culligan co-led the commentary along with colleagues from several universities and associations.

The authors write that the biggest sustainability problems of the day—such as climate change, land degradation, water scarcity, and collapsing ecosystems—won’t be solved by a single person working alone. The complexity of these problems demands researchers collaborating across disciplines and working with non-academic partners, including businesses, government officials, and community members.

The authors offer several suggestions for how academia, funding agencies, and professional societies can foster more collaborative work. They include:

  • Creating new metrics that place a value on collaborative work and real-world impacts;
  • Incentivizing interdisciplinary papers published in high-quality journals, and weighing publications with multiple co-authors from different disciplines as a positive indicator of a researcher’s ability to collaborate;
  • Recognizing interdisciplinary collaborations through awards from professional societies, governments, foundations, and universities;
  • Regarding non-academic impacts—such as research that leads to creating a sustainability plan for a local community—just as highly as academic contributions;
  • Publishing case studies in journals, to disseminate local lessons in sustainability to the rest of the world.

These changes stand to benefit not only sustainability research, but also global health, global security, and many other fields that benefit from transdisciplinary collaboration. However, if the research world doesn’t modernize its values, the authors fear that the promise of a more sustainable world will remain a distant goal.

It will take time to change the culture of science and academia as a whole, but some groups are already leading the way—including Columbia’s Earth Institute.“Increasingly, universities are recognizing the scholarly importance of achieving excellence through societal contributions that go beyond the delivery of research publications and patents,” says the Institute’s new director, Alex Halliday. “Indeed, all U.K. universities are invited to demonstrate the societal impact of their research in the Research Excellence Framework that dictates their core funding. At the Earth Institute, academic researchers thrive on engaging across disciplines with communities globally, and also locally, to provide much needed expert advice. This is a win-win for all. Many of the most academically interesting questions and challenges come from such joint working and real world engagement. In most of our activities there is no such thing as a split between pure and applied; no inconsistency between research discovery and the finding of relevant solutions. And the prize is the development of a highly sophisticated understanding of problems and their solutions that can change lives.”

Read the full commentary on Nature Sustainability’s website; the article is open-access until August 16, 2018.

The other authors include: Elena G. Irwin from The Ohio State University; Marina Fischer-Kowalski from the University for Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, Austria; Kara Lavender Law from the Sea Education Association; Raghu Murtugudde from the University of Maryland; and Stephanie Pfirman from Arizona State University, formerly Columbia’s Barnard College and Earth Institute.

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