Sustainability science takes the stage before UN #globalgoals summit

Download the new report on sustainability research by Elsevier and SciDev.Net

Recently, the world watched as its leaders put aside historic disagreements and modern-day conflicts to join forces and sign the largest international climate agreement in history. It was exciting progress on the road toward sustainability, but progress that can only continue if we use the right fuel — information. As the world’s largest publisher of scientific information, with expertise in data analytics, we are in a unique position to contribute to the understanding of sustainability science through our analysis of macro trends in the field. That’s what we did in a report and panel on the eve the UN ratified its Sustainable Development Goals.

Building on the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals, 194 countries will ratify 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) tomorrow to end poverty and promote prosperity and individual well-being by 2030 while protecting the environment. The UN has called for scientific research and evidence to drive this agenda, and the movement has been gaining media attention worldwide.

Elsevier, in collaboration with SciDev.Net, conducted a bibliometrics review based on data from Scopus of the sustainability science research landscape between 2009 and 2013.

Download the reportThe report, Sustainability Science in a Global Landscape, presents an evidence-based overview of how the scientific capacity of countries is being leveraged to address sustainable development and to identify areas of opportunity for research and collaboration.

In the report, the term sustainability science is used to describe the research that supports and drives sustainable development. In spans virtually all fields, including environmental science, social science, public health, medicine, economics and physical sciences.

Announcing the launch of the report, Ron Mobed, Elsevier's Chief Executive Officer, said:

Ultimately, science needs to be fully integrated to address the world’s grand challenges. We will need to build local research networks with global capacity. This report provides valuable insights for further discussions and to benchmark our progress.

Measuring the impact of a burgeoning field

To gain insight into the global research landscape underpinning sustainable development, the Elsevier Analytical Services team identified six research themes in sustainability science encompassed by the SDGs — Dignity, People, Prosperity, Planet, Justice, Partnership — and adopted a keyword-based approach to find publications relevant and specific to these themes.

Independent experts in the fields helped to revise the keywords before search queries were created for Scopus. The validity of the searches was checked and fine-tuned over several rounds of keyword revisions. The number of publications, their impact and the degrees of international, interdisciplinary and cross-sector collaboration within the field were then investigated.

In the review the quantitative analyses were further supplemented by interviews with these key researchers in the field. In this way bibliometric findings were placed in the larger context of sustainability science as a vehicle to achieve sustainable development.

Highlights of the findings

  • The top five countries for research in sustainability science are (in order of research output) are (1) USA, (2) UK, (3) China, (4) Germany and (5) Australia.
  • Elsevier CEO Ron MobedSouth Africa and countries in East Africa serve as network hubs connecting other African countries to the USA, Canada, and Western Europe.

[pullquote align="right"]"Ultimately, science needs to be fully integrated to address the world’s grand challenges."[/pullquote]

  • Collaborations with developed countries are essential for low-income countries. The collaborations with developed countries contribute to the great majority of low-income countries’ research output in sustainability science.
  • Overall, Planet is the largest theme, second in growth only to Prosperity, with an annual growth rate of 10.7 percent in research output.
  • Although the level of interdisciplinary research (IDR) in sustainability science research is below world average, it shows an increasing trend during 2009-13. IDR focuses on a few main topics, including: pollution and health, water, and energy and fuels.

Nick Ismael-Perkins, PhDDr. Nick Ismael-Perkins, Director of SciDev.Net, said:

The report reveals a number of important features around the production and consumption of research which both the academic community and development practitioners should be aware of. We can be encouraged by the growth of research about sustainability because we need as many people thinking about this as urgently and as comprehensively as we can.

What researchers, funders and policymakers need to know

The findings revealed the strengths and focus of particular countries: for example China is the third largest contributor to sustainability science. Its research focuses on the theme Planet, yet little research on the themes of Dignity, Justice and Partnership is produced by the country. In the US, research focuses on People (which encompasses medicine, an area that receives significant funding in the country), Planet and Justice; in the UK, Planet, People and Justice dominate the agenda.

Areas of opportunity

The report also identified striking gaps in research topics and needs. While the field of sustainability science is internationally collaborative, most of that collaboration occurs within high-income countries or between high- and upper-middle-income countries. Only 2 percent of the research in the field is produced by low-income countries. This raises concerns that countries on the front lines of famine, drought, inequality and pollution are not engaged in research that could lead to solutions they might ultimately deploy.

The analysis revealed a decline in the impact of research on the important themes of Justice – which encompasses violence, conflict and democracy – and Partnership. And whereas academia and industry are strong partners in health-related research, the private sector is collaborating less with researchers in other areas.

These gaps in knowledge and networks offer researchers, funders and policymakers tactical knowledge for increasing the impact of their activities, fund management and policy design.

The report is the first step in a series of activities on sustainability science that Elsevier will carry out to support the sustainable development agenda.

Summary of main findings

  • Research on sustainability has grown almost twice as fast as research overall each year between 2009 and 2013 (7.6 percent compared to an annual growth rate for all published research of 3.9 percent).
  • It receives 30 percent more citations than an average research paper.
  • Despite this growth, the level of interdisciplinary research in sustainability science is below the world average, the collaboration between academia and industry is low, and low-income countries contribute to no more than 2 percent of the research output in sustainability science compared to 76 percent contributed by high-income countries.

Expert panel

Update: To launch the report, Elsevier and SciDev.Net hosted a panel September 25 in New York, where leading experts on sustainable development discussed key findings and related issues. The panel was moderated by Robert Lee Hotz, Science Writer for The Wall Street Journal. Panelists were:

Read about the panel here: "Turning sustainability on its head before UN summit"

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Elsevier is celebrating the unsung, the unseen and the yet unknown. We are proud to support collaboration and innovation every day through information and smart tools and in special ways, like the report and panel you are reading about here. For more stories about the people and projects empowered by knowledge, we invite you to visit Empowering Knowledge.

Sustainability infographic

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Elsevier Connect Contributors

Lei Pan, PhDDr. Lei Pan is Content and Analytics Product Manager at Elsevier. She specializes in assessment reports for government, academic institutions and funding bodies and in combing publication and citation data with macroeconomic data to link research performance to policy and economic development. She focuses her work on Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Lei holds a PhD in Economics from VU Amsterdam and a Master of Economics from Erasmus University Rotterdam and the Tinbergen Institute.

Coralie Bos, MScCoralie Bos holds an MSc in Business Administration, graduating cum laude from Erasmus University Rotterdam. There she won first prize for her thesis Three phases of Sustainable Strategy Development. As a Program Manager for Gobal Communications at Elsevier, Coralie manages the development, implementation and governance of Elsevier’s Integrated Brand Strategy. As a strong believer of integrating sustainability goals into business objectives, she states: “Concessions need not be made to quality and profitability in order to contribute to sustainable development. By deliberately looking at and breaking ingrained patterns, we can take steps to further develop capabilities to create sustainable businesses and prosperity for future generations.”

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