Recently, scientists around the world have become increasingly vocal about the need to use the social sciences to guide sustainability policy at different scales. Perhaps the best example of such an effort is the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change; another major research network is the Earth System Governance project.

These developments are encouraging in that they bring together scholars from different disciplines, including the natural sciences. This is integral to the study of sustainability, and neither publishing incentives nor research networks in traditional disciplines encourage interdisciplinary research. In my own field, political science, publication in an environmental journal is not regarded a good idea for an untenured assistant professor; I suspect I would not get away with it unless I also had publications in traditional political science journals. In economics, the incentive to publish outside economics is probably even weaker.

These incentives have some curious, and ultimately tragic, consequences for the study of sustainability:

  • Most of the work on “governance” or “political economy” in interdisciplinary journals would not be recognized as such by mainstream political scientists or political economists;
  • While technological advances in remote sensing and other data collection techniques open amazing opportunities, these are badly under-utilized in the study of the politics of sustainability because political scientists and political economists do not interact with the natural science community.

This is clearly a problematic situation, but the incentives for fixing it are not there. Interdisciplinary work does not attract the best political scientists because the leading political science departments mostly do not reward publication outside political science (and perhaps some economics) journals. At the same time, it seems unreasonable to expect that natural scientists would have a good understanding of the state of the art in the study of politics, or that they would invest heavily in studies that will be published in political science journals.

To be sure, there are policy schools with faculty who need not worry about perverse publication incentives in traditional political science and economics departments. However, the methodological training offered in these schools seems to lag behind the training offered in political science and economics departments (I realize that many of my economist friends consider the gap between political science and economics equally wide), and so scholars hailing from policy schools sometimes tend to produce one case study after another. This is not to say that case studies are not valuable, but there is a clear need for more rigorous, explicitly quantitative analysis in the study of sustainability.

OK, I realize this was a bit of a rant. Sometimes this line of research can be frustrating… it would be rather nice if I could just focus on the substance, instead of trying to impress other people in my discipline who are blissfully unaware of the situation in this new “sustainability science” that is now emerging, with growing pains.