What Is the Recipe for a Sustainability Research Center?

Solving complex environmental problems requires expertise from multiple disciplines and perspectives. Yet experts working in diverse fields on the same topic use different language, methods, and tools and ask fundamentally disparate questions—which in turn produces a complicated, uncertain, and sometimes even contradictory body of results that is difficult for non-experts to make sense of. Understandably, households, companies, and governments trying to make informed decisions can be confused about how to use this multitude of results.

Similarly, researchers studying complex environmental problems can find it frustrating when their results are not put into practice. Research has shown that social and political dynamics have a remarkable influence on the ways in which scientific research informs, or fails to inform, the decisions made by policy-makers, business leaders, and individuals. Therefore, the solutions to many environmental problems are transdisciplinary—they require collaboration amongst experts in different fields. But how and where do those collaborations happen?

SESYNC at the University of Maryland, University of Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative, University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability are some of the places working to produce research that can be effectively used by decision-makers. The deans and directors of these institutions came together in a session at the February meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, MA, to discuss how the organizational structures of their institutions actually facilitate interdisciplinary research. While a traditional university model fosters the creation of academic specialists, sustainability research centers are designed to facilitate research by groups of specialists that have vastly differing backgrounds, approaches, and perspectives on environmental problems.

Scientific enterprise in universities is traditionally structured around disciplinary boundaries where faculty members are incentivized to advance fundamental knowledge in their field. The organizational (e.g., tenure and promotion process, staffing models, administration) and even physical structure of a typical university campus reflects this academic “silo” mentality, and perpetuates the effective collaboration of faculty and students within well-defined areas of research. In the past, collaborating with non-academics, or even researchers from a different part of campus, was a risky endeavor for faculty members working within traditional academic settings.

SESYNC and other sustainability-focused research centers are experimenting with institutional models that facilitate research that is more likely to make an impact beyond the academic community. These places prioritize actionable research portfolios and communication networks between scientists and non-academics, and have flexible organizational models to accommodate the dynamic nature of research topics being addressed. Creating a rigorous academic culture centered on actionable science requires leaders of these institutions to develop new metrics to evaluate the success of their more ambitious but novel goals. How will they measure the success of a new communication network? How will non-traditional research outputs be considered in promotion processes? What institutional support is necessary for successful interdisciplinary collaborations?

Highly-motivated and collaborative faculty members that were frustrated by not seeing their research used to solve problems are now finding homes in institutions like SESYNC, where research with actionable results that cross social, economic, political, and natural science disciplines is prioritized. These institutions are thoughtfully considering how to make the best use of their faculty’s diverse talents and harness that expertise towards meaningful outcomes.