Nature Sustainability: Promoting Interdisciplinary Research to Advance Global Sustainability
Combining disciplines to create a new science
The newest Nature Research journal, Nature Sustainability, blends natural, social and engineering research fields to support new policies and deliver actionable solutions to sustainability challenges. These challenges can range from climate change, land degradation and water scarcity to collapsing ecosystems and expanding urban slums. Combining news, comment and original research, the journal’s aim is to build a multidisciplinary, cross-professional community that is equipped with the knowledge and confidence to build a more sustainable planet. Nature Sustainability intersects with almost every one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and plays an active role in tackling many of the Grand Challenges, with a particular interest in sustainable cities and sustainable food systems.
Sustainability research differs from many other fields because, at its core, it is interdisciplinary and therefore doesn’t have a defined ‘home’. While research into Sustainability has been going on for decades, the approach has been less systematic than Basic Science which means it hasn’t attracted the same level of recognition or developed into a well-defined field with established standards.
This was one of the main motivations for launching Nature Sustainability. Its vision is three-fold: to bring together broad categories of sustainability research in one place; facilitate ongoing debate about how academia is supporting the field; and define practical solutions for more effective policy-making. The other increasingly pressing issue that led to the launch of the journal, is the need for sustainability research to have a stronger policy and civil society interface. Speaking on this issue, Chief Editor, Monica Contestabile said:
“This isn’t a passive process. As the editors of Nature Sustainability, we have to steer the community to facilitate debate, help different communities talk to each other and encourage a more experimental approach.”
Creating the conditions for increased interdisciplinary collaboration
Key to driving greater interaction between academic disciplines to support more sustainable management of natural assets, is providing engaging spaces for these communities to come together and collaborate. The journal itself is one such environment for discussion and idea-sharing, but it’s also the vehicle for creating other types of forum. This is a big area of focus for the team behind Nature Sustainability and it’s how the UCL-Nature Sustainability Panel on the urban science policy interface came about. The editorial team was invited by a group of urban researchers to participate in a panel on urban sustainability. They felt that this was an important area lacking the requisite profile and that there was a real need for the research community to reflect on how it should evolve as an academic discipline, and which standards should be established to support that.
The panel, which first met in July 2017, brought together 30 global experts from different disciplines - all with an interest in urban research - and has delivered a report that will be published in the next few months. Nature Sustainability and UCL defined three core goals for the panel: an assessment of the current state of research on urban science; an exploration of why the interface between policy and science isn’t working; and the development of cross-functional strategies to address the problem. Together, panellists addressed urban sustainability in the context of the environment, technology, infrastructure and population - with the end goal of moving the field forward and building a science-policy interface that is currently missing. Comment from the panel was published in the first issue of Nature Sustainability.
More recently, to tie in with the journal’s launch, its editorial team organised an international forum hosted by Tsinghua University, Beijing. This saw experts with a broad range of disciplinary backgrounds come together to address the need for scaling up interdisciplinary research to better support global sustainability.
“In the broad context of sustainability, framing the research questions through an interdisciplinary lens is exceptionally important in light of the most urgent and interrelated policy needs that are encapsulated in the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development adopted recently by the United Nations.”
Nature Sustainability 1, 77 (2018)
This editorially-led event brought together 40 people from across the globe to discuss how to establish sustainability research as more than just a collection of disciplines, with the aim of helping academic institutions offer more formal research opportunities in the field. Meeting global sustainable development goals requires researchers trained in an interdisciplinary way from the very outset. But until academic institutions get the funding and recognition needed to better develop and support multi-disciplinary fields such as this one, the barriers to achieving global sustainability will be much more difficult to break down.
Driving discourse between academics and policymakers
The initial focus of the Grand Challenges programme was sustainable cities. This inspired the Science and the Sustainable City Summit which took place in Singapore in July. The theme of the summit was ‘putting urban science to work’ and it brought together researchers from multi-disciplinary backgrounds with city mayors, property developers and town planners. Its goal was to develop long-term, effective communication strategies that will bring researchers into much closer proximity with policymakers and urban planning departments. This will help scientists be more responsive to the most pressing needs of urban communities and ensure that urban development policies are grounded in evidence-based research.
“There is an urgent need to bridge the current gap between policy and research to develop sustainable urban environments that support the needs of their populations, without negatively impacting the wider world. Singapore is investing heavily in making the city-state clean, socially-cohesive and sustainable and we hope that by bringing together a wide range of experts we can lay the groundwork for replicating these conditions more broadly”.
Facilitating academic change to sustainably satisfy the needs of our global population
Nature Sustainability has been welcomed with lots of enthusiasm by the research community because it fills a big gap in cross-disciplinary research. The journal’s mission is for all its published original research to be truly interdisciplinary. There are three core strands of research that feed into sustainability: Social Sciences, Natural Sciences and Engineering. The editorial team reflects all three of these areas, bringing interdisciplinary knowledge to a broad range of sustainability challenges.
Speaking about her vision for the journal, Chief Editor Monica Contestabile talked of her wish to drive real change in academia by inspiring more interdisciplinary research and establishing sustainability as a recognisable field. Her belief is that the journal has the potential to bridge the gap between research and policy to effect real and lasting change. And whilst Contestabile explains that Nature Sustainability isn’t restricted to the Sustainable Development Goals, she recognises these as a valuable framework and is keen to see urban research coming higher up the agenda of the UN’s SDGs.
“We need more resources and more collaborative thinking in urban science if we’re to address some of the most pressing challenges emerging across cities worldwide today. We also need to significantly reduce the time lag between published research and putting policies into practice. These are both big areas that I want Nature Sustainability to address over the coming months and years.”
This article was written by Emma Warren-Jones, Director of Edible Content, from an interview with Monica Contestabile.