To Be the Force it Could Be in Sustainability, Academia Needs to Build Bridges Faster

July 25, 2018

Academic institutions have the opportunity to play a far bigger and much-needed part in helping society solve global sustainability challenges, according to an Ohio State University researcher and her colleagues.

In an opinion piece in this month’s Nature Sustainability journal, Elena Irwin, professor of agriculture, environmental and development economics at Ohio State, and national and international co-authors argue that universities must do more to change the long-held systems of rewarding individual, disciplinary-based research.

“Unless there is a commitment to change, academia will fail to deliver on the promise of a more sustainable world,” the authors conclude.

“Academic institutions can and should be reworking the research incentives and reward systems for faculty,” Irwin says. “We also should increase support for communications and outreach to partner with community, government and industry stakeholders so we can make research by academics more relevant, useful and used to address sustainability challenges.”

The comment piece, “Bridging barriers to advance global sustainability,” suggests academic enterprises need to build bridges across disciplines and collaborate with non-academic entities through systemic innovations:

  • Develop new metrics to judge researchers beyond academic publications to include non-academic contributions such as sustainability plans for local communities and high-status awards from professional societies, governments and foundations.
  • Develop new sources of funding to support greater collaboration among academic and non-academic partners. Examples could include requirements that funding proposals include community partners like sustainability officers from government to ensure the research is applicable or from industry to support market-based solutions.
  • Establish communications and outreach efforts to ensure that research findings are successfully applied to solutions, including support for extension specialists working with local and global communities.

“Building these bridges,” the authors say, “will require the commitment and support of scientists, administrators, funders and a multitude of non-academic stakeholders engaged in sustainability initiatives from local to global scales.”

Ohio State’s commitment to building such bridges shows in its Discovery Themes initiative, which connects and builds on expertise across six campuses, 15 colleges, 105 departments and more than 220 centers and institutes to accelerate new discoveries and translate knowledge into practical solutions for meaningful impact. Equally important, it increases the incentives and support for faculty to engage in interdisciplinary research.

“Transdisciplinary collaboration brings together researchers and external partners who might never have thought to work together,” says Executive Vice President and Provost Bruce McPheron. “It recognizes that problem-solving is most productive when diverse ideas collide in a constructive give-and-take — and the sustainability challenges ahead of us require this type of higher-order thinking.”

Irwin, faculty director of the Sustainable and Resilient Economy Discovery Theme, cites Ohio State’s Comprehensive Energy Management Project as a model for how universities can partner with the private sector to manage energy services and create a more sustainable campus while providing real-world opportunities for research, student learning, and campus-wide engagement. The public-private partnership created Ohio State Energy Partners, which is made up of ENGIE North America and Axium Infrastructure. The 50-year partnership to manage the university’s energy systems has a total value of $1.165 billion, including a $1.015 billion upfront payment to the university and a $150 million commitment to support academics.

One immediate outcome of the partnership was a pilot project between ENGIE and the Environmental and Social Sustainability Lab at the School of Environment and Natural Resources to explore how behavioral change interventions on campus can promote energy conservation. The collaboration — designed to generate knowledge that ENGIE can use to meet its energy consumption reduction goals — grew out of a student INNOVATE-O-thon focused on students’ energy habits.

“As a national flagship land-grant university, Ohio State has long recognized the importance of public-private partnerships and is pioneering this approach in its sustainability-related efforts,” Irwin says.

Irwin co-authored the commentary with Patricia Culligan, Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, Columbia University, New York; Marina Fischer-Kowalski, Institute for Social Ecology, University for Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, Austria; Kara Lavender Law, Sea Education Association, Falmouth, Mass.; Raghu Murtugudde, ESSIC-AOSC, University of Maryland; and Stephanie Pfirman, who at the time of the writing was at Columbia University Environmental Science Department and Columbia’s Earth Institute and now is at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability.