Getting a closer look at the exploding field of sustainability science

The headquaters of the United Nations in New York is lit up to display its 17 sustainable development goals. The growing field of sustainability science will play an important role in supporting these targets, experts say. Photo: UN/Cia Pak
Apr 2016

A new report finds that sustainability science is undergoing rapid growth, but some experts argue that researchers need more support for working across disciplines and borders.

An analysis of 11 million publications has found that sustainability science is growing at a rapid rate, almost twice as fast as the average across research disciplines.

From 2009 to 2013, researchers around the world produced 334,019 publications in sustainability science, according to a report led by publishing powerhouse Elsevier and the science and development organisation SciDev.Net. While it only represents 3% of the world’s research output, sustainability science is growing at 7.6% annually. Among all research fields, publications are  growing at an average rate of about half that, or 3.9%.

“This is the first time big data has been used to understand trends in sustainability science,” says Josh Tewksbury, Director of Future Earth’s Colorado Global Hub who was involved in the development of the report. “This report clearly shows that scientific communities are working more and more together to find solutions to critical sustainability challenges, but there is also a clear need to make that path easier to follow.”

The report is essentially an inventory of the scientific knowledge that is currently available to support implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Agreed upon by nearly 200 countries in September 2015, the 17 goals will help countries implement policies to improve dignity, health, education, equality, economic prosperity, ecosystems, climate change, justice and collaboration over the next 15 years.

The authors of the recent report filtered through research papers in Scopus, an abstract and citation database of peer-reviewed literature run by Elsevier. They categorised the 334,019 papers by country of origin as well as the SDG themes. These themes include the “planet,” or research around ecosystem services and climate change, and “people,” such as studies of health, education and gender equality. The new database enables analysts to get a detailed view of the knowledge existing in the field and where the gaps lie.
“For example, we didn’t know before that ‘planet’ is the type of research that is growing the fastest or that the USA is very focused on the theme of ‘people,'” says Coralie Bos, Senior Manager Corporate Brand at Elsevier who led the creation of the report.

International collaboration brings big benefits (for some)

Academics working on sustainability collaborate across borders much more than other sciences, the report finds. Around half of the sustainability science publications from Germany and the United Kingdom are joint efforts by researchers from different countries. What’s more, when researchers from different countries collaborate, they are cited 30% more than the average across research disciplines.

Most collaborations take place between high- and middle-income countries, such as Germany and Sweden. But if you are from Germany, and you publish with a Swedish author, it has very little impact on your citation rate. If you are from China or South Korea, however, and you publish with a German, Swedish or U.S. author, your chance of getting citations goes way up.

“This is because the bridge between Sweden and Germany is not very large. Those communities are already well connected, and so they’re reading each other’s work on a regular basis, and there’s not too much advantage of having an international team on a paper,” Tewksbury says.

“But for China, which has published a huge volume of research — much of which is relatively insular and is not as well recognised outside of China — the presence of an international collaborator from the community that is external to China makes a big difference in the probably of that paper being cited as it moves forward.”

Emerging economies, such as Brazil, India and China, also have a much lower citation impact compared to many nations more historically invested in research.

“You could interpret that these papers aren’t as strong. You could also interpret it as being that the larger research communities in the developed world are not really paying much attention to research papers from these countries, ” says Mark Stafford Smith, Science Director of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Climate Adaptation Flagship in Canberra, Australia. He is also the Chair of Future Earth’s Science Committee. “This would be a serious mistake, since they really are the largest part of these growing areas for the future.”

Cross that silo at your own cost

The report also finds that when a publication has authors from different scientific fields, it is typically cited less often than publications by authors all in the same discipline. Tewksbury, for instance, crunched the numbers for ecology. He found that ecologists like to cite other ecologists.

“We like to talk about the natural world, and we have a hard time figuring out how to think about how other parts of the world, like the social sciences and physical sciences, are integrated with our ecology. And when we do, it is a little less likely to be cited by ecologists,” Tewksbury says.

“I think that this is because our social networks are focused around disciplines. And so, if I am an ecologist, I am comfortable judging the quality of a research paper in that discipline, and I know how to cite that literature. But I’m less likely to be familiar or comfortable with research outside of ecology, because my training is disciplinary.”

Such is the nature of disciplines, Tewksbury adds — encouraging very deep thought within particular areas but also creating silos that scientists leave at a cost.

“In a perfect world there would be reviewers who are as adept across the disciplines as there are reviewers who are adept within disciplines. It requires a community focused on sustainability science that is well supported around the world and is acknowledged by those in more disciplinary fields as having equal value and adding value to their own work,” Tewksbury says. “The hunger is there. We are starting to create sustainability science journals, but we have not yet developed a robust community of practice to support those journals.”

Elsevier is helping to build that community — both by  launching new sustainability journals, and by asking for scientists to submit interdisciplinary papers to its existing journals. In 2017, Elsevier will also publish 17 best practice examples of how interdisciplinary research has been implemented.

While working across disciplines is important, Tewksbury says that it’s just as important for scientists to work with communities outside of the research world. Still, many in academia only value a scientist’s performance based on scientific publications — the “publish or perish” dogma. That doesn’t incentivise scientists to collaborate with others beyond academia, such as with the private sector or policymakers.

“We need to also value outputs like leadership in policy interventions, the creation of technological platforms that are implemented with decision-makers, workshops and collaborative planning exercises,” says Amy Lerner, assistant research professor at Mexico’s National Laboratory for Sustainability Science (LANCIS) and the sustainability science graduate programme at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) — the first programme of its kind in Spanish-speaking Latin America.

The end of ‘publish or perish’?

The Elsevier and SciDev.Net report only looks at how scientists cite each other. To truly understand how society uses science, we need a different kind of analysis, Tewksbury says. Elsevier, for instance, plans to expand its analyses of scientific trends to sources beyond peer-reviewed publications, including to “grey literature,” or reports published outside of academic journals.

“The goal of solutions-focused science is to help provide evidence for solutions. So what you really want to understand is what are channels by which evidence gets into the solution space? Is there a greater opportunity for sustainability science to get there faster?

“You just don’t start with scientific literature, you start with the literature that the decision-makers use. If decision-makers are primarily using disciplinary science and all this interdisciplinary research doesn’t get into the right ears then it’s not having the impact that we want it to have.”

The growth of sustainability science reflects the time we live in, Tewksbury says — that society is demanding a transition to a sustainable future. This means there is a huge need to better organise scientific communities around the world to more effectively deliver solutions to major societal problems.

“The goal of Future Earth is to create and support such a community. And, I think, the outside-of-academic world is very hungry for that,” he says.

Elsevier plans to repeat the analysis in several years as a way to monitor emerging trends.