Ecological Society of America honors paper for systems integration

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March 9, 2017

A unified paradigm to meet growing global challenges has been recently recognized by the Ecological Society of America (ESA) as “the greatest contribution” to sustainability science that integrates ecological and social sciences.

The paper “Systems Integration for Global Sustainability” will receive the Sustainability Science Award at the society’s annual meeting in Portland, Ore., in August.

It appeared in Science Magazine in February 2015 and was written by Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Michigan State University’s director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS); Harold Mooney of Stanford University, Vanessa Hull of the University of Florida, Steven Davis of the University of California – Irvine, Joanne Gaskell of the World Bank, Thomas Hertel of Purdue University, Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University, Karen Seto of Yale University; Peter Gleick of The Pacific Institute, Claire Kremen of University of California, Berkeley, and Shuxin Li, also of MSU CSIS.

Liu, Hull, Davis and Li are members of CHANS-Net.

The paper made the case that the growing global challenges have rendered sharply segregated expertise obsolete. Disciplinary approaches to crises like air pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change, food insecurity, and energy and water shortages, are not only ineffective but also can make many of these crises worse because of counterproductive interactions and unintended consequences.

“The real world is integrated,” said Liu, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and the paper’s lead author. “Artificially breaking down the real world into separate pieces has caused many global problems. Solving these problems requires systems integration – holistic approaches to integrate various pieces of the real world at different organizational levels, across space and over time.”

The paper’s authors, in essence, paint a new paradigm of research that crosses boundaries among natural and social science disciplines, as well as other disciplines such as engineering and medical sciences.

They assert that scientific advances and effective policies must be integrated and that engagement between researchers and stakeholders is critical. 

The ESA is a community of 10,000 members dedicated to understanding life on earth. In its commentary on the award, ESA notes the integrated paradigm “will likely require the development of new analytical frameworks both to understand the social-ecological mechanisms involved and to inform management and policy decisions for global sustainability.”

And indeed, that is taking place. Telecoupling, which embraces socioeconomic and environmental interactions over distances, sometimes several thousand miles away, has since the paper’s publication gathered momentum in the scientific world. The framework has been applied to many challenges addressed in the Science paper.