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A global science

Posted 01/12/2011 by sevans

It is official: sustainability is now a global science that continues to grow, at least that is what US researchers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Indiana University believe. They have reviewed 20,000 academic papers written by 37,000 separate authors from 174 countries and more than 2200 cities over the period 1974 to 2010 – a mammoth task in anyone’s language.

Although in areas like natural sciences, there is a concentration in a few cities in the developed world, however, such centres of excellence do not exist when considering the science of sustainability. 

‘The field is widely distributed internationally and has a strong presence not only in nations with traditional strength in science – the US, Western Europe and Japan –but also elsewhere,’ says researcher Jasleen Kaur from the school of informatics and computing at Indiana University Bloomington. ‘It is also perhaps surprising that the world’s leading city in terms of publications in the field is Washington DC, outpacing the productivity of Boston or the [San Francisco] Bay Area, which in other fields are several-fold greater than that of the US capital.’

The evidence also shows a strong presence for sustainability science in smaller universities and laboratories around the world, from Australia and the Netherlands, to Nigeria, Kenya and Turkey. Other fields contributing to this new science include social science, as might be expected, with environmental policy representing over 20% of its total output; weed management representing almost 17% of the total output of the biology total; and soil science accounting for 23.6% of the engineering total.

‘We believe that all this evidence, when taken together, establishes the case for the existence of a young and fast-growing unified scientific practice of sustainability science,’ says co-author of the study, Luis Bettencourt, from the Los Alamos laboratory.

But the science of sustainability is also a business imperative as BASF’s chairman Kurt Bock pointed out this week at the company’s headquarters in Ludwigshafen, Germany. ‘The motivation for more sustainability has changed over the years,’ he said. ‘From the 1960s to the 1980s, stricter regulations were the main reason for companies to become more sustainable. In the 1990s, sustainability was driven by efforts to cut costs; lower energy consumption in production saves hard cash.’

But he noted that towards the millennium, corporate sustainability engagement expanded to social responsibility and in the future, ‘sustainability will be one of the main growth drivers for business’. 

‘This means that sustainability will be much more closely integrated into business and will therefore be a major driver to create value. More sustainability can only be achieved through innovation – and that is where chemistry plays an essential role.’

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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