Sustainability Science

Turning sustainability on its head before UN summit

Panel focuses on need for sustainability science – what it means and how to turn research into action

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Moderator Robert Lee Hotz introduces the panelists (left to right): Luisa Massarani, PhD; Takako Izumi, PhD, Romain Murenzi, PhD;  Alexander Zehnder, PhD; and Richard Horton, FRCP. (Photos by Alison Bert)

Sustainable development is not just about being “green.”

The Panelists

It’s not at odds with profitability.

And there’s something else sustainability science should seek from the private sector other than financing.

These were just a few of the ideas discussed and debated at a panel organized by Elsevier and SciDev.Net. Nearly 100 researchers, educators and policymakers convened at One United Nations Plaza in New York Thursday evening to hear sustainable development experts from around the world talk about the importance of sustainability science and how to ensure the field’s continued growth.

It was the eve of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, where 194 countries would ratify 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty and promote prosperity and individual well-being by 2030 while protecting the environment. To support those goals, Elsevier and SciDev.Net released the analysis they collaborated on. Sustainability Science in a Global Landscape provides an objective overview of the landscape of sustainability science as a research field with a critical eye as to whether enough is being done in the field given today’s global challenges.

Hannfried von Hindenburg, Elsevier's SVP of Global Communications, introduces the panel discussion.The report reveals that 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.

As Dr. Richard Horton proclaimed in his opening presentation: "Sustainability science is hot science!"

In the report, the term sustainability science is used to describe the research that supports and drives sustainable development. It spans beyond environmental sciences to encompass virtually every discipline, including economics, social science and public health.

In fact, the evening began with a nod to the term “sustainability,” which is not universally defined or understood and continues to evolve along with the field of sustainability science. In the words of moderator Lee Hotz, “It’s kind of like an adolescent in search of an identity."

In introducing the panel, Hannfried von Hindenburg, Elsevier’s SVP of Global Communications, paraphrased the UN’s definition of sustainability, saying it means “living today so we can live in peace and harmony tomorrow.”

 Richard Horton, FRCP, FMedSciAnd while panelists debated the fine points of sustainability science and the best way to translate it into action, a common sense of urgency pervaded the evening. Dr. Romain Murenzi, a key architect of Rwanda's blueprint for science-based sustainable development after years of civil war and genocide against the Tutsi, spoke of a “crisis of consciousness,” proclaiming that “development without sustainability is morally wrong.”

[pullquote align="right"]"Sustainability science is hot science!" — Dr. Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief, The Lancet[/pullquote]

The panel started with a discussion of the report’s findings and what they mean for sustainable development. Dr. Richard Horton stated, “This report shows the disparities in sustainability science that we need to fix if we're going to build an inclusive world.”

He pointed out that with 76 percent of sustainability research produced by high-income countries compared to just 2 percent by low-income countries, there’s a clear North-South divide, reflecting ongoing global inequalities.

The need for more collaboration among countries and disciplines was emphasized throughout the evening. While the report showed that interdisciplinarity is higher in China and India than in leading research counties such as the US and UK, it also revealed that the level of interdisciplinary research in sustainability science is below the world average.

Luisa Massarani, PhD, and moderator Robert Lee Hotz.“Collaboration is key for advancing sustainability science in our developing countries,” said Dr. Luisa Massarani of SciDev.Net and a researcher for the Museu da Vida in Rio de Janeiro, Braszil.

But collaboration alone, or even more research, is not the whole solution, she added. “It’s not only about increasing sustainability science research; we need to actually put this research into practice to benefit society.”

Dr. Murenzi spoke of the need to help countries “break out of science poverty.”

“The invention of electricity was close to two centuries ago, but there are people in the world yet to experience what we know as an every-day staple,” he said.

Romain Murenzi, PhDHe talked about the importance of building a “global science culture” with more interdisciplinary research and North-South collaboration.

[pullquote align="right"]"Development without sustainability is morally wrong. — Romain Murenzi, PhD, Executive Director, TWAS"[/pullquote]

Dr. Horton argued that North-South collaborations are already taken place, and the study shows an upward trend in the degree of collaboration between 2009 and 2013. “Collaboration in sustainability science between high- and low-income countries are beginning to take hold, we just need to figure out how to foster them,” he said.

He also recommended looking to the private sector for ways to implement research findings. "We need to view the private sector for not just financing but delivery," he said.

Takako Izumi, PhDDr. Takako Izumi also highlighted private-sector partnerships in talking about strategies for Japan to improve the impact of its sustainability science research. “In Japan, we have made big strides in sustainability science but we have a long way to go,” she said, “and one way we can continue momentum is leveraging partnerships between those in the sciences and the private sector.”

Panelists discussed how researchers, policymakers and industry should work together to integrate sustainability science at the local level. “Key action for sustainability science lies within our cities, where the rubber hits the road and immediate sustainability advancements can be made,” said Dr. Alexander Zehnder.

In bold strokes, Dr. Zehnder also tried to dispel common misconceptions about sustainability. “Sustainability is not about being green,” he said. “It deals with our every-day life and the future of our society.”

He explained that sustainability is not about saving the planet, which will go on with or without us, but about saving ourselves and our ability to live here.

Romain Murenzi, PhD; Alexander Zehnder, PhD; and Richard Horton,  FRCP, FMedSciAs one of the three designers of the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes, Dr. Zehnder also pointed out that sustainability practices can often go hand-in-hand with profitability. For example, sustainable development includes practices that make industry more efficient and less wasteful, as well as workplace policies for a more satisfied and productive workforce.

Sustainability science also deals with issues of gender.

Dr. Massarani pointed out the attention being given to women and their role in sustainable development. She pointed out Goal No. 5 in the UN sustainable development goals: “Achieve Gender Equality and empower all women and girls.”

“Not only do women got a specific goal … but also the dimension of gender appears in the whole agenda in a transversal way,” she said. She added that it would be interesting to analyze the gender dimension of sustainability science using the Scopus database.

Panelists also focused on areas of opportunity within sustainability science, including a stronger role for funders, an increased presence of researchers in communicating the importance of the field to policymakers and the need for academic institutions to adapt their structures to meet the needs of interdisciplinary research.

Their emphasis on translating research into practice was reflected in the call to action by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the UN Summit, who stated: “Implementation is the litmus test of the new agenda; it will require political leadership and integrated action.”


Download the report

<em>Sustainability Science in a Global Landscape</em> is being released on the eve of the UN's Sustainability Summit.

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.

South Africa and countries in East Africa serve as network hubs connecting other African countries to the USA, Canada, and Western Europe.

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.


Elsevier Connect Contributors

Coralie Bos, MScCoralie Bos (@cbos2) 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 Global 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.”


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.


Dr. Alison Bert, DMAAlison Bert (@AlisonBert) joined Elsevier in 2007 from the world of journalism, where she was a business reporter and blogger for The Journal News, a Gannett daily newspaper in New York. As Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier Connect, she works with people around the world to publish daily stories for the global science and health communities,

In the previous century, Alison was a classical guitarist on the music faculty of Syracuse University. She received a doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, was Fulbright scholar in Spain, and studied in a master class with Andrés Segovia.


Iris Kisjes, Senior Corporate Relations Manager at Elsevier and organizer of the sustainability panel, also contributed to this report.

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