Global Change Science is Not Enough

By Bruce Hull

Global change science will not produce sustainable development.  Yes, of course, we need more global change science to better understand climate, biodiversity, pollution and the like. We also need better resource sciences (water, soil, oil), social sciences (economics, politics, sociology), and engineering sciences (agricultural, information, mechanical, and more recently biological).  But improved understanding will not be enough. The challenges that lie ahead also require leadership capacity.

A recent PNAS history of climate science reviews the historical challenges and failures of science producing useful/powerful information that leads to change.  It demonstrates the bias that scientists have, and hence university programs such as our Global Change Center have, for science over action. That’s understandable. Scientists derive their salaries and identities from their capacity to offer correct advice about how things work or might respond to possible interventions, not from helping make those interventions happen.

But global trends are clear: sustainable development requires action. Now. We stand at a pivotal moment of human history with climate changing, biodiversity plummeting, global middle class exploding, and both urbanization and agriculture almost doubling by 2050.

Two obvious responses emerge: The Global Change Center could strive to educate and advise our graduate students to be a new breed of activist-scientist that intervene and act and advocate for change. That path is a contentious and high-risk proposal because when scientists become advocates of political solutions, they risk damaging the legitimacy of their science that comes from being neutral and agnostic about application.

Alternatively, the Global Change Center could support two distinct career paths for its graduate students: science and leadership. Students who follow the science career path learn the methods of science and go on to be scientists and to teach the next generation of scientists. Students who follow the leadership path are educated in the best available global change science and in the best methods of leadership and influence. They go on to be the change agents and the bridges between science and change.

Other responses exist for the Center, but these two suffice to raise a question the Global Change Center should ask and answer if it wants to be relevant to the 21st Century. How should the Center integrate leadership into its programs? Hopefully it won’t retreat into labs and journals and argue that excellent science is what we do best so that is all we should do—and offer a token nod to distant decision makers, saying we will strive to keep them informed of our findings in hopes that our information translates into their action. We must be bolder. We must take more responsibility. We must go beyond the actions of “study” and “inform.” We must also equip global change professionals with the leadership skills they need to succeed in influencing the actions and interventions that will shape our future.

How should we do that?

About the Author:

R Bruce Hull, For Resources; 2010 XCaliber Award for Excellence..

Bruce Hull is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability and a professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. He is also a faculty member in the Interfaces of Global Change IGEP and the Global Change Center.

Read more of his essays at Constructing Sustainability.