Research Frontiers in Sustainability Science: Bridging Disciplines and Practices

American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting – Washington, DC
19 February, 2011

Fostering a transition toward sustainability -- toward patterns of development that promote human well-being while conserving the life support systems of the planet – has emerged as one of the central challenges of the 21st century. Building the science and technology needed to support a sustainability transition requires a truly multidisciplinary approach that integrates practical experience with knowledge and know-how drawn from across the natural and social sciences, medicine and engineering, and mathematics and computation. The beginnings of such an approach have been taking shape within a variety of forums and are now coming together under the rubric of "sustainability science." The organizers recently ran, for the National Science Foundation, the first effort in a decade to conduct a systematic, community-based assessment of research opportunities and priorities across the full substantive and methodological breadth of the field. That workshop identified six domains of multidisciplinary research at the frontier of sustainability science. The goal of this symposium is to highlight the excitement and originality of scholarship in the field by featuring one example of new cutting-edge, multidisciplinary research from each of the six domains, presented by some of the most distinguished leaders in the field. A discussant will highlight the interconnections among the featured research domains and will address the challenges of bringing results to bear on pressing practical problems of the day.

Levin, Simon A., and William C. Clark, Eds. 2010. Toward a Science of Sustainability. Report from Toward a Science of Sustainability Conference, Airlie Center, Warrenton, Virginia, November 29, 2009 – December 2, 2009. Princeton, NJ: Center for Biocomplexity, Environmental Institute, Princeton University and Cambridge, MA: Sustainability Science Program, Center for International Development, Harvard University.

William C. Clark, Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Simon A. Levin, Princeton University

William C. Clark, Harvard Kennedy School of Government
Research Frontiers in Sustainability Science[Presentation slides]

Simon A. Levin, Princeton University
Complex Adaptive Systems and the Challenge of Sustainability[Presentation slides]
The continual increase in the human population, magnified by increasing per capita demands on Earth's limited resources, raise the urgent mandate of understanding the degree to which these patterns are sustainable. The scientific challenges posed by this simply stated goal are enormous, and cross disciplines. What measures of human welfare should be at the core of definitions of sustainability, and how do we discount the future and deal with problems of intra-generational and inter-generational equity? How do environmental and socioeconomic systems become organized as complex adaptive systems, and what are the implications for dealing with public goods at scales from the local to the global? How does the increasing interconnectedness of coupled natural and human systems affect the robustness of aspects of importance to us, and what are the implications for management. What is the role of social norms, and how do we achieve cooperation at the global level? All of these issues have parallels in evolutionary biology, and this lecture will explore what lessons can be learned from ecology and evolutionary theory for addressing the problems posed by achieving a sustainable future.

Stephen Polasky, University of Minnesota
Natural Capital and Human Well-Being[Presentation slides]
Human society depends on vital goods and services provided by ecosystems but there is concern that human actions are eroding the natural capital that underlies the provision of ecosystem services. In principle, the value of natural capital can be measured by how it increases the flow of services and the consequent increase in human well-being. To do this in practice we need to have improved understanding of links between ecosystem structure and function and provision of ecosystem services and the contribution of services to human well-being. This talk will review recent advances in understanding and empirical evidence of the connection between natural capital and human well-being.

B.L. Turner, II, Arizona State University

Eric Lambin, Stanford University and Université Catholique de Louvain
Change in Tropical Forests: Challenges Addressing Its Complexity[Presentation slides]
High and sustained rates of forest loss driven by smallholder population pressures was once a prevalent interpretation of human-environment dynamics in the tropical world. Two decades of research focused on monitoring change in tropical forest cover and addressing its causes reveals a far more complex reality. Tends and trajectories of change display considerable spatio-temporal variation, including forestation, while the drivers of change are complex, and more often than not, linked in integrative networks of relationships. These relationships are increasingly being reshaped by global, regional, and local structural transformations that change land uses and the amount of land in forest cover. At least two challenges confront the next generation of research on tropical forest change. First, systematic, regional-longitudinal, comparative assessments are needed to facilitate both global downscaling and other modeling efforts. Second, incorporating the profound structural transformations underway in the tropical world, effecting local-to-regional land dynamics, appear to be pivotal for improved sustainability assessment.

Edward L. Miles, University of Washington
The Combined Impacts of Changing Ocean Thermal Structure and Ocean Acidification on Marine Ecosystems: Developing a Framework on the Policy Dimensions[Presentation slides]
This presentation seeks to connect the world of science with that of policymaking in the context of the combined effects of ocean acidification and increased warming of the surface ocean on marine ecosystems. The problem is treated as one of creating responses to multiple stresses on a global scale in which there is considerable regional and local variability. The argument is made that while a combination of stressors constitutes a global problem, it cannot be managed effectively at the global scale. The alternative offered is the design of a path to creation of a regionally-focused global network for linking research and monitoring to development of policy options and evaluation of management strategies.

Background material:
Miles, Edward L. 2009. On the increasing vulnerability of the world ocean to multiple stresses. Annual Review of Environment and Resources34: 17-41.
Hoegh-Guldberg, Ove and John F. Bruno. 2010. The impact of climate change on the world’s marine ecosystems. Science328: 1523-1528.

Thomas Graedel, Yale University
Human Use of Metals: Quantification and Prospects[Presentation slides]
Today’s technology employs virtually the entire periodic table. The stocks and flows of the major metals, essentially unknown a decade ago, are now reasonably well quantified. The same cannot be said for the “specialty elements”, most of which have important uses in modern technology for which suitable substitute materials do not exist. A key issue is therefore whether scarcity implies long-term shortages or unavailability. To address this issue, a detailed methodology for generating a reliable assessment of the criticality of metals has been completed. The methodology makes extensive use of peer-reviewed datasets and analytical approaches from the fields of geology, international trade, political science, and international policy, among others. In this presentation, the methodology is described and then used to evaluate the criticality of several metals, selected in collaboration with partners from industry and government (the “criticality consortium”). The results provide guidance for materials choice in product design and development, recycling potential, and the consideration of substitute materials.

Background material:
Graedel, Thomas. 2010. The Yale Stocks and Flows (STAF) Project.

Amy Poteete, Concordia University
The Politics of Natural Resource Policy: African Examples[Presentation slides]
This presentation discusses the influence of political organization and competition on natural resource management in Africa. Particular attention is give to how different types of interventions in natural resource management trigger the mobilization of different scales of political community, and of how interactions across political communities at different scale affect the content and implementation of natural resource policies.

Background material:
Poteete, Amy R. 2009. Defining political community and rights to natural resources in Botswana. Development and Change40(2): 281–305.
Poteete, Amy R. and Jesse C. Ribot. 2011. Repertoires of domination: Decentralization as process in Botswana and Senegal. World Development39(3):439–449.
Poteete, Amy R. 2010. Analyzing the politics of natural resources: From theories of property rights to institutional analysis and beyond. In Environmental Social Sciences: Methods and Research Design, edited by Ismael Vaccaro, Eric Alden Smith, Shankar Aswani. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 57-78.

Shere Abbott, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President
Response to AAAS Symposium on "Research Frontiers in Sustainability Science": Thoughts on the Federal Uptake of Sustainability Science[Presentation slides]

Pamela A. Matson, Stanford University
Response: Linking knowledge with action for sustainability