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Universities must be catalysts for sustainable development

7 August 2023

By Cherry Murray, PhD, E William Colglazier, PhD, Franklin Carrero-Martinez, PhD, Emi Kameyama

Quote card with authors Cherry Murray, PhD, E William Colglazier, PhD; Franklin Carrero-Martinez, PhD, and Emi Kameyama

The US is a laggard in integrating the UN Sustainable Development Goals; here’s how universities can remedy that.

Amid the complexities of sustainable development, a decades-old definition lingers because of its simplicity: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” states the 1987 UN Brundtland report, Our Common Futureopens in new tab/window. There are three components of sustainable development: economic growth, social equity and environmental protection. The United Nation’s 2030 Agendaopens in new tab/window and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)opens in new tab/window, adopted in 2015 by 193 nations, address these three components in detail.

The Agenda is a call to action for all nations; the SDGs are a framework to address economic, societal and environmental challenges “leaving no one behind” by 2030.

This post is from the Not Alone newsletter, a monthly publication that showcases new perspectives on global issues directly from research and academic leaders.

There are 17 interrelated and often mutually reinforcing goals for humanity, comprehensively addressing poverty reduction, good nutrition and health, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, industry innovation and infrastructure for a sustainable future, reduced inequalities, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, climate action, reducing biodiversity loss both on land and below the water, working towards peace, justice and strong institutions and partnership.

While climate action tends to draw the most attention, the SDG framework includes much, much more and is relevant for all nations, developing and developed. To date, the framework has been adopted by the vast majority of countries: only five countriesopens in new tab/window have not submitted at least one Voluntary National Review (VNR)opens in new tab/window of their plans, roadmaps and actions taken for achieving the SDGs to the UN High Level Political Forum.

Why a systems perspective is crucial

In taking action towards a sustainable future, a systems perspectiveopens in new tab/window is needed to determine the possible trade-offs and synergies between individual SDGs at different temporal and distance scales for each particular community, region or nation’s sustainable development. For example, climate action by itself will not necessarily lead to sustainability: a sustainable plan of moving from coal to clean energy will need to be mindful of providing decent local work to displaced miners to reduce inequality and enhance resilience and recovering biodiversity around abandoned coal mines — thus not aggravating these important localized economic, social and environmental needs. Without taking the comprehensive SDG framework into account, the pursuit of specific goals by themselves could be inefficient and even counterproductive for sustainabilityopens in new tab/window.

This year, 2023, marks the midpoint on the way to 2030, and despite much early progress on some of the SDGs — such as SGD1 elimination of poverty, SDG2 elimination of hunger, SDG3 good health, SDG4 quality education, and SGD6 gender equity — we are now falling behindopens in new tab/window. And as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Report 6opens in new tab/window points out, we are dangerously falling behind on climate action. As a result of three years of a global pandemic, multiple conflicts causing food shortages, economic hardships, a temperature rise of 1.1° C since preindustrial times causing severe weather events, and unprecedented biodiversity lossopens in new tab/window, it is imperative to accelerate progress towards all SDGs.

The integration of the SDGs into national plans, policies, regulations and monitoring systems is uneven across countries. The United States is a laggardopens in new tab/window: it is one of the five countries that have never submitted a VNR, and the only nation of the 20 OECD Development Assistance Committee members that does not incorporate the SDG framework into its international assistance frameworks.

Perhaps then it is not surprising that a 2022 surveyopens in new tab/window has shown that much of the US public does not recognize the SDGs by name as a framework for developing a more inclusive and sustainable local community and nation, yet the same survey shows that in a bipartisan way, the public agrees with the essence of the goals for their community and for the US as a whole.

The four of us served as committee co-chairs and academy staff of a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study Operationalizing Sustainable Development to Benefit People and the Planetopens in new tab/window, aimed primarily at US audiences. In the workshops gathering information for the report, we found examples of promising initiatives and leadership at the local level in the US on operationalizing the pursuit of SDGs.

How universities can support sustainable development

In this article, we will focus on US universities as role models and catalyzers of this broad definition of sustainable development in their local communities, their nations and of course the Earth.

What we found in our workshops is that a best practice to operationalize SDGs is to “think globally and act locally”: solutions for achieving the relevant goals require local action and are best determined by a community-wide process that takes time to include and listen to all stakeholders.

Universities have several high-level goals: educating the next generation of leaders; research and scholarship; and service to society, especially their local communities.

As demonstrated by several outstanding examples and case studies in the workshops leading up to the NASEM report, we conclude that US universities can and must catalyze what’s necessary for accelerating the operationalization of sustainable development in all three components: economic growth, social equity and environmental protection. Around the world, most nations, universities and citizens have embraced the SDGs as a common framework, and it is unfortunate that the US is an exception. US universities can provide the education, research and community leadership for the local SDG focus necessary for our sustainability, which can ultimately roll up into city, state and national plans to attain the SDGs.


Universities must ensure that every student regardless of major understands the overlapping challenges we face in our economy, society and environment. Both international surveysopens in new tab/window and US surveysopens in new tab/window find that most students want their universities to teach sustainability and to be more sustainable in their investments and campus practices; however, US students tended not to include the social and economic challenges in their thinking on sustainability, consistent with the lack of emphasis in the US on the entire set of SDGs.

Good US exemplars in teaching and immersion of students in projects covering the whole range of SDGs are noted in the NASEM report:

  • A required “Sustainability 101” course for every undergraduate at Arizona State University regardless of major.

  • Regional partnerships spearheaded by the University of Texas at Arlington to promote sustainability education.

  • Student-led urban SDG projects in partnership with the City of Los Angeles.

  • Much capacity building and learning in the first campus-wide Voluntary University Review by Carnegie Mellon University, followed by university leadership and student engagement in action projects to support the City of Pittsburgh’s Voluntary Local Review.

Selected global education programs with UN connections are highlighted in an earlier (2020) NASEM report: Strengthening Sustainability Programs and Curricula at the Undergraduate and Graduate Levelsopens in new tab/window.

Universities must also ensure that each student has the critical thinking and partnership skills to address these challenges by teaching a systems-level understanding of all the SDGs and their interactions.

Research and scholarship

Universities can provide the research and scholarship to better understand the balance of trade-offs and synergies among the SDGs; the science underpinning the interactions between climate, the local environment and biodiversity; and how to lower the cost of sustainable solutions and technologies for particular communities and help bring government and business together to finance place-based initiatives. The university community can embrace indigenous knowledge, often more in tune with preserving the environment, and study the social science of inequality and extreme poverty.

Service to society

Universities are one of the best stakeholdersopens in new tab/window to lead the development of their local community Voluntary Local Review (VLR) of plans and progress towards the SDGs, as demonstrated by Carnegie Mellon University and their involvement in the VLR of the City of Pittsburgh as well as local universities in Los Angeles and Hawaii providing faculty- and student-led SDG projects. Science, technology and innovation is required for accelerating progress on the SDGs, and universities are well suited to encourage green technologies, digital tools to further SDGs, and entrepreneurship along with challenges and prizes to young entrepreneurs.

A call to step up

In conclusion, the US needs to step up and embrace all the economic, social and environmental aspects of sustainable development, as framed by the UN SDGs. Universities are educating the leaders of future generations who need to deal with the problems we have created. Universities provide the scholarship and research needed along with innovation and entrepreneurship for solutions. Universities can provide the community service to catalyze action.

This is a call for all universities and university leaders to step up, especially in the US.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.


Prof Cherry Murray, PhD


Cherry Murray, PhD

Professor of Physics; Deputy Director for Research, Biosphere 2

University of Arizona

E William Colglazier, PhD


E William Colglazier, PhD

Editor-in-Chief, Science & Diplomacy

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

Franklin Carrero-Martinez, PhD


Franklin Carrero-Martinez, PhD

Senior Director, Science and Technology for Sustainability Program

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine


Emi Kameyama

Program Officer, Science and Technology for Sustainability Program

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine