Although the precise definition of sustainability continues to be discussed and debated, general agreement has emerged about what areas deserve most attention, and actions are being taken in all of them. We are embarked on a transition toward sustainability.
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With a still-growing human population, rapidly increasing consumption, and ever-increasing stresses on the environmental services on which we rely, however, this transition needs to accelerate. Like the fields of medical science and agricultural science, the emerging field of sustainability science is not defined by disciplines but rather by problems to be addressed and solved. It encompasses and draws on elements of the biophysical and social sciences, engineering, and medicine, as well as the humanities, and is often multi- and interdisciplinary in effort.
The field reaches out to embrace relevant scholarship on the fundamental character of interactions among humans, their technologies, and the environment, and on the utilization of that knowledge by decisionmakers to address urgent problems of economic development and environmental and resource conservation. Sustainability research is appearing in scientific journals and influencing some real-world decisions, and the field is now in need of a well—thought-through plan that engages the broad research, educational, and funding communities.
And although literally every discipline can and needs to contribute gems of scientific and technological knowledge to help meet the sustainability challenge, none can make sufficient progress working alone; thus, we need concerted efforts to bring those disciplines together to work on integrative challenges.
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The need for integrative, problem-focused research becomes clear when addressing some of the grand challenges of sustainability. Consider energy. The challenge is to understand not just what new technologies are necessary, but also how to implement them in a way that avoids unintended consequences for people and the planet.
Science is key to our sustainable future
Our recent experience with biofuels from food crops shows what can happen when we focus too narrowly on a specific energy goal in isolation from its interaction with food production, water and air pollution, trade, climate, and other environmental and social needs. Another key challenge in sustainable development is biodiversity conservation. The disciplines of evolutionary biology and ecology have provided fundamental insights into factors that maintain species or prevent them from flourishing, but research on biodiversity is by itself not sufficient for sustainability science.
Efforts that focus on the connections between biodiversity conservation and the economic and social needs of people are also needed. The emergence of research and on-the-ground efforts to account for benefits derived from ecosystems and use them explicitly for the well-being of people is a clear illustration of sustainability science. The climate challenge similarly provides an illustration of the particular needs of sustainability science.
A research endeavor that addresses climate change needs to focus not only on understanding change in the physical climate system through observations and models, but also on the ways in which people and ecosystems respond, adapt, and mitigate. Doing these things separately from each other, without a coherent program, leads to critical gaps. As these examples suggest, research for the sustainability transition needs to be integrative and coordinated.
Great progress in one narrow area does not ensure success. We need to make sure we are covering the right research territory so that solutions are possible and new technologies and approaches can actually be useful and used. This is going to require a balanced and coordinated research endeavor with balanced research fund allocations. Such a coordinated plan is important not just for its near-term practical benefits in challenging resource areas, but also for the fundamental development of the field and its longer-term advances.
Although sustainability science addresses a broad and sometimes seemingly unrelated range of specific science needs, it is linked by core themes and questions that emerge no matter what set of resources or environmental challenges is being addressed. For example, questions about driving forces of change such as consumption, behavior and values, and population trends that underlie resource use and depletion are common to all.
Underlying questions about institutions, incentives, and governance structures are critical across all. Although the core questions of sustainability science have been discussed in the literature and around the conference tables of the National Academy of Sciences and other institutions, there has been no recent international effort to outline the fundamental components of the research agenda for sustainability science.
This needs to be a part of the five-year plan and perhaps can best be led by organizations such as the U. National Academies and their international equivalents.
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The research agenda of sustainability science will be an enormous one. A number of changes are needed in our research institutions and in our funding organizations if we are to move more quickly down the path to sustainability. These difficulties suggest a number of necessary actions within academia.
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