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Environmental Research

Society is ready for a new kind of science—is academia?

In her 1998 essay in Science, Jane Lubchenco called for a “Social Contract for Science,” one that would acknowledge the scale of environmental problems and have “scientists devote their energies and talents to the most pressing problems of the day.” We were entering a new millennium, and Lubchenco was worried that the scientific enterprise was unprepared to address challenges related to climate change, pollution, health, and technology.

Twenty years later, our global challenges have only grown in complexity and urgency. Never before have we had such a clear understanding of our environmental crises and yet also been so far from delivering the investment in actionable research that Lubchenco called for. If the March for Science was any indication, researchers are ready to engage. But will universities acknowledge the need for reform?

Academic institutions are increasingly seen as elite enclaves, out of touch with real-world problems. We cannot afford to wait decades more for universities to provide the infrastructure and foster the culture needed to turn ideas into action. If we want science to serve society and the planet, as Lubchenco argued it must, we all must take responsibility for institutional innovation in five key areas. We need to:

1. Produce not only professors but also future environmental leaders

Few faculty members can mentor students interested in real-world problem-solving, because most do not engage in use-inspired science or cultivate the relationships needed. Employers are increasingly demanding hybrid skill sets, but most graduate programs produce individuals with highly specific training and uncertain prospects. More faculty conducting applied work will help, but institutions can do their part by incentivizing partnerships between scientists and practitioners, and providing training and career paths for scientists whose focus is engagement with business, government, and communities.

2. Cultivate a culture that values use-inspired research

In many basic-science departments, research with immediate relevance to societal issues is seen as second-class work. But the problems of the so-called real world are wondrously complex; they require a level of creativity that matches the most abstruse theoretical pursuit. Scientists need guidance on how to codevelop research with external partners and a greater appreciation for the time and resources required to effectively engage. And if scientists make this effort, then universities must incentivize this work by rewarding those who deliver real-world impacts in promotion and retention decisions. The bias against applied science needs to go extinct.

“When science is paralyzed by precision, society misses out on progress.”

3. Move ideas into action faster

The “price we pay for precision,” wrote Nobel Prize–winning economist Douglass North, “is an inability to deal with real-world problems.” If we have learned anything from the climate-change debate, it is that a small degree of uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction. Academics should emulate the tech sector and employ tools from design thinking to prototype ideas and iterate solutions with end users. Decision-makers and risk analysts can help researchers determine when they know enough to take action—and what the risks are for inaction. When science is paralyzed by precision, society misses out on progress.

4. Put people at the center of environmental science

People make decisions, shape policies, and face the consequences of environmental change. However, individuals and communities are largely sidelined in environmental research, too often seen as recipients of knowledge or objects of study rather than true research partners. Recent calls for scientists to “establish dialogues” with the wider world are valid, but fail to acknowledge decades of applied work at land-grant institutions and by social science on the human dimensions of natural-resource issues. Putting people front and center in environmental science requires natural scientists to prioritize partnership with the social sciences, arts, and humanities. Authentic partnership with individuals and communities can also expand the frontiers of traditional disciplines, leading to new insights.

5. Reimagine academic structures to encourage innovation

Many scientists are housed in discipline-specific departments with few incentives to collaborate; even fewer engage meaningfully in the broader world. Furthermore, academic administration, finance, and legal departments move slowly whereas external decision-makers need time-sensitive solutions. Even within land-grant institutions, applied departments (agriculture, natural resources, and agricultural economics) are separate from basic departments (biology, ecology, and economics). Progress will come in the form of outward-facing units, infrastructure dedicated to bridging science to practice, and new positions that reward impact. When institutions support work of societal relevance, researchers will not have to wait until tenure to explore controversial topics and to develop the partnerships that lead to long-term engagement and discovery.

There are signs of progress. For example, impact-oriented training programs for students, faculty, and leaders of all sorts are expanding in response to demand for applied skills. University and nongovernmental-organization partnerships and industry-university links have led to innovations, including technologies that detect and mitigate methane leakage; open-source software that enables leaders to account for nature’s contributions to society; and new financial models designed to fight poverty and expand access to clean energy. In all of these cases, the ingredients for success were the cultivation of partnerships, buy-in from university leadership, and researchers with the expertise to codevelop solutions with end users. Other bright spots include action-oriented policy institutes that link academics with decision-makers, new impact-oriented metrics for academic research, and university-sponsored grants employing evaluation criteria that prioritize impact over publications.

Individual initiatives, however, will not deliver solutions at the scale needed to address the formidable challenges of our time. We need systemic change spanning incentives, culture, and research design in order to cultivate a generation of scholars who will increase the relevance and influence of academia. It is time for university presidents, provosts, faculty, and philanthropists to double down on the interdisciplinary, solutions-oriented work that our complex world needs.

In February, Jane Lubchenco reiterated her call for a “quantum leap into relevance” driven by greater engagement and reforms that reward societal impact as a core responsibility of academia. We are living in times of revolution on many fronts. Perhaps one of them can be to reinvent our centers of learning—to harness their power to address the critical challenges of our time.

Featured image credit: glass, experiment, science by chuttersnap. CC0 Public Domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Rudy Troike

    Much of basic scientific research is not immediately applicable, and to insist that it should be would incredibly limit this valuable exploration of knowledge. Physicists should not be required to demonstrate the social value of their work — that is the function of engineering. On the other hand, the application of ideas from basic research sometimes opens new vistas for investigation. However, the call overlooks the fact that many scientists already feel a social obligation to “give back” by looking for ways to make their knowledge relevant. Linguists in the 1950s, as they did their research, felt such an obligation, working in school desegregation and courtroom and health delivery contexts to provide a sound scientific base for equitable social policy, as well as improving language teaching, computer translation, and now, artificial intelligence.

  2. Gregory Jackson

    I enjoyed this article, but see a fundamental problem with the framing. “Use-inspired” science usually means increasing the relevance for industry/business. But the basic aim of industy and business is to generate profi, rather than transform themselves and the rules of the game of the economy in order to address grand challenges. So if we are to unite ourselves as academics behind such an agenda, I would suggest a better label along the lines of “public interest science”. This type of self-understanding was quite important in the US “progressive” era and the expansion of agricultural outreach in midwestern public universities. A similar story could be told about the field of industrial relations. People like sociologist Michael Burawoy talk about “public sociology.” In any case, if science is to focus on the big issues, this is not a question of “use” but also of WHOSE use. And here we need to reclaim public interest as a positive term and stand behind it. Constructing this as a debate merely between academic rigor and “real world” relevance misses the point entirely.

  3. Dr UN Nandakumar

    Very pertinent in the current global scenario. Researchers and scientists have to move towards problem solving research rather than adopting their compartmentalized approach to scientific discipline and experts in different fields have to work together and have to be ready to work in cross cutting areas and disciplines to find solutions to real life problems. Scientific knowledge as well as growth an development in various disciplines have to emerge and develop based on such problem solving efforts.

  4. Becky Lee

    What’s really frustrating about this article, is that it presumes that none of this is already occurring. When did scientists become engineers? When did scientists ascribe to “solving problems” when in some cases we have no idea what said problems are! It really makes me wonder whether this article understands science at all. As if all of us are studying frivolous matters or our extensive knowledge of a specific topic is somehow negative. Problem solving abilities is a skill, good scientists are good problem solvers. However, we have to ask ourselves given such a broad topic, what exactly are you expecting we solve? The problem of climate change? Ok, how about stringent regulation on carbon emissions! I don’t agree with this article at all. It trivializes the immense amount of work it takes to develop expertise in a field of science. And just because you don’t think its important, because it doesn’t address climate change directly, doesn’t mean that it isn’t. There are far better things we can be doing, than picking on scientists, perhaps we pick on legislators. There’s a good topic right there. Science doesn’t exist to serve problems that face humanity, it is a method exercised to answer questions.

  5. Jeff Pollari

    Keeler writes many a fine point that provokes critics simply because of how close to home this issue is to everyone. Reimagining the school programs to give students practical experience that they and the environment can use for the better is a must. Many standards in academia are held simply because they are status quo and traditional not unlike the U.S.’s voting system which could be vastly improved if standards in technology were taken in to account. The institutions have a duty to keep up with the potential of the individual and the urgency of the environmental crisis which are probably more interdependent than people are crediting. Where are the phd urban permaculture plans, applied food forest science degrees, courses for self-help/psychology of eco-responsibility, and social analyses of the causes that inebriate immediate response to broaching global change? Simple Solutions exist and they need to be reinforced for a victory that is as sustainable as it is economical. Free land giveaway for Dacha farming in Russia for instance is a practice that would completely revolutionize several of the greatest environmental problems, like top soil loss, and give the U.S economy fresh sustainable and healthy food to live on. The greatest challenge to modern adaptation is not environmental yet, its ideological.

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