Scholars identify sustainability’s 40 biggest questions

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While science usually gets recognized for churning up big answers, Michigan State University (MSU) researchers are mining the big questions.

Sustainability scholars across the globe have made the leap to embrace integrative and interdisciplinary research, yet where to best place that energy hadn’t been well defined. In this week’s journal Ecology and Society, a focus for understanding and managing coupled human and natural systems is gaining clarity thanks to surveys that asked scholars what were the most important questions

In part, it’s an acknowledgment of the mainstreaming and maturing of integrative research. Earlier generations of scientists were regarded as renegades if they branched out into separate disciplines. Now, the International Network of Research on Coupled Human and Natural Systems, known as CHANS-Net, has served as a groundswell of thought of where such science should go.

“Top 40 Questions in Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS) Research” highlights the current view of researchers active in the field as research questions to pursue in order to maximize impact on understanding and managing coupled human and natural systems for achieving sustainable development goals and addressing emerging global challenges.

“While similar horizon-scanning exercises have been done in other disciplines, this is the first by and for the CHANS community,” said MSU associate professor Dan Kramer. “We are a diverse group, and even CHANS researchers – a great majority of whom describe themselves as interdisciplinary – rightly focus on particular problems through particular lenses. Occasionally, it is worthwhile to step back and assess the broader communities’ current thinking for perspective and perhaps for an indication of what is to come in the field.”

CHANS-Net was founded in 2009 by Jianguo “Jack” Liu, MSU Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, along with other scholars practicing and advocating for CHANS work. It emerged at a time the National Science Foundation had ramped up funding for such research. CHANS-Net was funded by NSF, aspiring to create a network of like-minded scholars looking for collaborators and inspiration.

CHANS-Net has since grown to more than 1,700 members across the world. It was these scholars Kramer and his colleagues surveyed – twice – to find what they found to be the most important questions. The final result was 40 questions scientists chose as the most important to focus on.

The top topic: Land, particularly questions examining the tradeoffs inherent in the use of land to produce food and the associated demands on water, energy and the environment.

Climate change ranks second in imperative questions – “What are the human consequences of anthropogenic climate change, and how will those human consequences further shape coupled human and natural systems?”

Sustainability and development, adaptation and resilience, society and culture and governance also rank high in topics. The researchers also identified effective ways to engage or educate the public as high areas of interest across the topics.

“Science is changing to meet the world’s most critical challenges to sustainability,” Liu said. “Already, research on coupled human and natural systems has evolved to the telecoupling framework, enabling us to even more holistically understand how humans and nature interact across the globe. It is an important, and exciting, time to be asking these questions.”

Kramer agreed, adding, “I hope similar assessments of the CHANS community continue periodically as a way to take stock of where we are, where we’re going, to prioritize, and to plan,” Kramer said. “Global sustainability is the central challenge of our time and requires an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

In addition to Liu and Kramer, the paper was authored by Joel Hartter, Angela Boag, Meha Jain, Kara Stevens, Kimberly Nicholas, William McConnell.

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