Advancing Science Policy for Sustainability

Program Areas – Sustainability, Archived

Core to CSPO’s activities is the challenge of sustainability, of ensuring that the social and economic aspirations of the world are not compromised through destruction of the environment. Tens of billions of public dollars in the U.S. and in other affluent countries go to research and development (R&D) related to sustainability, in areas ranging from climate science to energy technology research. While it is unquestionably the case that the pursuit of sustainability depends critically and centrally on science and technology, it is equally the case that the capacity of the current research effort to advance sustainability is unknown. Our preliminary research in the area of climate science suggests pervasive, troubling disconnects between science portfolios and the information needs of decision makers who are addressing the climate change problem. This is unsurprising, because those decision makers have for the most part had no role in establishing science policy priorities for climate sciences.

On the whole, we have substantial reason to believe that our R&D effort for sustainability is poorly aligned with our knowledge needs, not just in terms of scale, but priorities as well. This is a crucial societal problem because of the urgency of a variety of sustainability challenges, the need for new knowledge and innovation to help meet those challenges, and the finite resources—fiscal and intellectual—available for creating the necessary knowledge and innovation.

This new project will apply new methods in science policy research developed and tested at CSPO to achieve three goals:

  1. Assess the capacity of U.S. government research and development programs to advance the goals of sustainability[1];
  2. Identify the most promising and plausible priorities for and approaches to improving the societal value of sustainability-related research; and
  3. Work with science policy decision makers and others to implement those priorities and approaches.

Initially, we will focus on two key areas of sustainability science: chemistry and natural hazards. These two areas represent different aspects of the sustainability challenge. Research on chemistry needs decisively to move away from traditional approaches based on creating chemical functionality that is governed by post-hoc risk assessment, and build into the chemical design process compatibility with natural function and limits from the outset. As the recent WHO recommendation to re-introduce DDT into Africa demonstrates, society is still excessively dependent on chemicals known to have adverse effects on humans and the environment. This is an innovation problem. In contrast, research on natural hazards needs to focus on providing useable tools for reversing the rapidly increasing human and environmental toll of hurricanes, floods, droughts, earthquakes, and other hazards. As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, awareness and prediction of a hazard is not the same thing as effective management of that hazard. This is largely a problem of creation and application of appropriate knowledge.

The expected results from this project include:

  1. A scholarly basis for assessing the capacity of U.S. science for advancing sustainability.
  2. A policy relevant framework for improving the capacity of U.S. science for advancing sustainability, with a focus on chemistry and hazards.
  3. Greater awareness among scientists, policy makers, and the interested public about how science and technology can better support sustainability. These expected results are aimed at the larger, more difficult goal of improving the quality of decision making that guides science and technology.

[1] The United States supports about one-third of all R&D worldwide; U.S. R&D policy is therefore a central influence on global knowledge evolution.
[1] The United States supports about one-third of all R&D worldwide; U.S. R&D policy is therefore a central influence on global knowledge evolution.