Integrating science, society, and education for sustainability

Network News Fall 2009, Vol. 22 No. 2
ASM Reports

One of the highlights of the All Scientists Meeting was Bill Clark's plenary talk entitled "Integrating Science and Society." Clark emphasized the great urgency, but also the tremendous opportunity that we now have to bring science into the arenas of political and social action, which can lead to both attention and action on global environmental problems.

Throughout the planet, environmental changes are moving rapidly, with environmental tipping points potentially just around the corner. According to Clark, the growing public awareness of the urgency of these changes and the political opportunity provided by the new administration in Washington gives science a chance to exert influence on policy, but only if scientists skillfully frame the issues and identify measurable goals.

Clark identified three essential criteria for science to effectively influence the beliefs and behavior of social and policy actors: credibility, salience, and legitimacy. He laid out a road map toward making science, and particularly sustainability science, more useful and impactful. His talk energized those of us who see the value and urgency for sustainability science and set the stage for the subsequent workshop.

Immediately after the talk, Clark and over 60 members of his audience convened in a workshop to further discuss the integration of science, society, and education for sustainability. The workshop was organized and led by Nancy Grimm (CAP), assisted by Jeannine Cavender-Bares (CDR), Ted Gragson (CWT), Scott Collins (SEV), Morgan Grove (BES), Charles Redman (CAP), and Chris Boone (BES, CAP). The workshop's goals were to 1) compare and contrast the Integrative Science for Society and Environment (ISSE) and existing sustainability science frameworks, and 2) develop a statement of how the objectives of sustainability science and education can be met using the power of long-term research and the LTER network.

Participants included many of the key individuals at the heart of the burgeoning sustainability science community, including many of the LTER scientists who authored the Integrative Science for Society and Environment (ISSE) framework. The workshop included practitioners, educators, and students; natural and social scientists from all corners of the LTER network; and international participants from countries as far away as Scotland and Finland, who are working to bring sustainability science into public consciousness and the policy arena. Highlights included a lively debate about the core concepts of the ISSE, and general agreement that the ISSE conceptual framework integrates social and ecological research frameworks.

Several other discussion themes echoed Clark's plenary talk. One was the need for co-production of knowledge by scientists and users (not scientists bestowing the prescriptions on the users), or between research and problem solving. Some saw the ISSE as research framework that needed a direct pathway that links research and problem solving. Thus, stakeholders need to drive the process of asking questions and investigating their answers as much as researchers (although it was acknowledged that researchers are stakeholders). Participants debated whether LTER should act as a boundary spanning institution - an organization that operates at the interface between science and policy, influencing both the generation of new knowledge and the application of that knowledge.

Finally, the group acknowledged that since the core of sustainability is the coupling of social and ecological systems, social scientists must be part of the sustainability conversation and seated at the table from the beginning when questions that require investigation are formulated, not appended onto the process after the questions have been posed.

In discussing the next steps, participants stressed the key element of sustainability education from elementary to graduate school. To this end, the workshop launched a multi-institution sustainability science seminar series as a concrete first step. This interactive series, the first of which took place via webcast in late October, involves a number of LTER scientists and students from the University of Minnesota (Jeannine Cavender-Bares, Sarah Hobbie, and Steve Polasky, all from CDR), Arizona State University (Arnim Wiek and Nancy Grimm, CAP), Harvard University (Bill Clark & Steve Wofsy, HFR), Florida International University (Jim Heffernan, FCE), Princeton, and the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico (Patty Balvanera, ILTER).

A summary of the seminar (as well as the opportunity to participate in the dialog by leaving comments) can be seen in a newly-established sustainability science blog,

David Bael is Cedar Creek's Graduate Student Fellow