How social science is driving a sustainable future (with special issue)

Get free access to the most essential social science sustainability research

SDG flow chart
Education drives each of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. (Source: "Implementing sustainability as the new normal: Responsible management education – From a private business school's perspective," The International Journal of Management Education , July 2017)

Editor’s note: This month we are exploring the theme of “Giving back: the emerging role of data and technology.” Here we present the latest social sciences research driving sustainability and look at the role the social sciences – including business education – play in driving sustainable development from the perspective of Dr. Carole Parkes, Professor of Responsible Management at the University of Winchester Business School and Chair of the UN-backed PRME (Principles for Responsible Management Education) Regional Chapter-UK & Ireland.

The greatest challenges faced by the world today are encapsulated in the following question: How can we improve human existence for all in the context of a resources- and carbon-constrained planet?

Social science researchers play a crucial role in answering this question, and by capitalizing on the tools and resources to that enable researchers to stay up to date, collaborate faster and reach their audience, they can amplify their impact.

In business and management, for example, university business schools are in an unique position to influence the mindsets and actions of some of the largest organisations on the planet; they are the educators of the next generation of business leaders.

Many forward-thinking business schools have already recognised their opportunities and responsibilities and joined the United Nations’ Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative. PRME was launched in 2007 at the UN Global Compact Leaders’ Summit in Geneva, attended by  more than 1,000 business, civil society and government leaders. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon set out the potential benefits of the PRME in his closing remarks: “The Principles for Responsible Management Education have the capacity to take the case for universal values and business into classrooms on every continent.”

The growing sector of sustainability science

The analytic functionality of Scopus and SciVal show that sustainability science publications have proliferated considerably since the launch of the UN Millennium Development Goals in September 2000. Coupled with a review of these goals in 2010, and the subsequent introduction of the Sustainability Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, this trend continues.

Sustainability science publications have proliferated considerably since the launch of the <a target="_blank" href="">UN Millennium Development Goals</a> in September 2000. (Sources: Scopus and SciVal)

Elsevier publishes more than 20 percent of the research in sustainability science, and these papers are more influential than the average for the social sciences. Drawing from this high-impact resource, we bring you a special article collection that showcases some of the most essential social science sustainability research. This research is free to download through March 17, 2018.

Elsevier’s share of journal publicaitions on sustainabilitiy topics (Source: Scopus and SciVal)

Education at the heart of SDG progress

The question of how to improve human existence for all has been at the heart of a global UN- process, that started at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2012 (UN, 2012) and involved engaging millions of people and thousands of actors from different stakeholder groups from all over the world. The outcome of this process was the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (UN, 2015), which was adopted by all member states at the UN General Assembly on September 25, 2015. This new global framework aims to be inclusive and transformational in redirecting humanity towards a sustainable path, and at the core of the 2030 Agenda are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Within the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, educational responses are key to the vision of the SDGs. Education is explicitly formulated as a stand-alone goal (SDG 4), and numerous education-related targets and indicators are also contained within other SDGs. Thus, education is both a goal in itself and a means for attaining all the other SDGs. (See the chart at the top of this story.) It is not only an integral part of sustainable development, but also a key enabler for it (UNESCO, 2017). This includes the education of current and future business leaders. As Secretary General, Ban ki Moon stated at the launch of the SDGs in November 2015:

Solutions will involve everything from regulation to disruptive innovation and everyone from world leaders and chief executives, to educators, activists and citizens.

The mission of PRME is to inspire and champion responsible management education, research and thought leadership globally. The PRME principles are inspired by internationally accepted values that underpin the work of the United Nations and the UN Global Compact’s work with business leaders. They seek to establish a process of continuous improvement among institutions of management education in order to develop a new generation of business leaders capable of managing the complex challenges faced by business and society in the 21st century and significantly in support of the SDGs.

Over the past decade, the PRME initiative has become the largest organized relationship between the UN and the world's business schools and management-related higher education institutions. PRME operates through a “network of networks” involving almost 700 signatory institutions, 15 PRME Regional Chapters around the world and 12 PRME Working Groups on issues such as Gender Equality, Fighting Poverty, Anti-Corruption, Climate Change and Environment, Sustainability Mindsets, Breakthrough Innovation Challenge and Business and Human Rights. The PRME Principles are available at

Dr. Carole Parkes holds up Elsevier’s special Issue of the International Journal of Management Education at a conference preceding the UN High Level Political Forum (UNHLP) in New York.To mark the 10th Anniversary of the Principles, Elsevier published a special Issue of the International Journal of Management Education to coincide with a conference held in New York in July 2017, just before the United Nations High Level Political Forum (UNHLP). As Jonas Haertle, Head of PRME Secretariat, explained: “the Outcomes Declaration of the 2017 PRME Global Forum is reflected in the outcomes of the United Nations High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, underscoring the importance attached to other stakeholders in reporting progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.”

The PRME special issue is just one of the subject areas that have contributed to the increase in published research addressing the SDGs. We have handpicked the following high-quality papers to bring you an overview of some of the most important research in social science sustainability.

Special collection: essential social science sustainability research

Elsevier expertise supporting social scientists

The list above gives an indication of the range of SDG-related topics in our social science journals. Elsevier works closely with editors and editorial teams to ensure that papers meet the needs of today’s researchers, translating research into trusted expert advice that empowers readers to improve society.

The Journal of Transport & Health, launched in 2014, demonstrates how expert Elsevier publishers collaborate with the community and actively encourage and shape the scientific landscape. This journal won the 2016 Prose Award for Best New Social Science Journal.

Some of the individual research is award winning as well, such as the article “The social responsibility of international business: From ethics and the environment to CSR and sustainable development” in the Journal of World Business (January 2016). This paper, which focuses on how multinational companies should support sustainable development, won the Elsevier Atlas Award in January 2016.



Written by

Carole Parkes, PhD

Written by

Carole Parkes, PhD

Dr. Carole Parkes is Professor of Responsible Management at the University of Winchester Business School, Chair of the UN-backed PRME (Principles for Responsible Management Education) Regional Chapter-UK & Ireland and a leader of the PRME Working Group on Fighting Poverty as a Challenge for Business and Management Education. In July 2017 at the Global Forum for PRME's 10th Anniversary, Carole was awarded a PRME Pioneer Award for her leadership and commitment and appointed Special Advisor to the UN PRME initiative (for chapters). She provides guidance to the PRME Secretariat and Chapters on development and governance issues and alignment of activities to help advance the Sustainable Development Goals.

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