Factors that Influence the Exit Rates of Sustainability Science: A Graduate Student’s Perspective

By Colin Kunzweiler Sustainability has been called both a buzzword and the issue of our age, but the field’s explosive growth demonstrates that it is also an "infectious" concept and field. Through a population model that included states of susceptibility, exposure and infectiousness (Figure 1), two authors recently explored individuals’ introduction to and progression within the emerging discipline of sustainability science (1). To summarize, susceptible individuals may understand sustainability to a certain extent or are interested in what the field has to offer, but they simply have not had enough contact with the concept or the field’s members to be sufficiently exposed to the idea. Exposure occurs through education and action, and the susceptible individual soon becomes capable of harboring and supporting the concept of sustainability. After extensive contact with infectious members (professors, researchers, or practitioners) the individual becomes a true member capable of infecting, or recruiting, others. While the authors use this model to describe the field’s rapid growth, they fail to describe the exit rate of individuals, which limits the field’s expansion and growth. Too often these exit rates, and the factors that influence them, are ignored. In this piece, I address this deficit and explore some of the challenges that may drive students, researchers, and practitioners away from or out of the field of sustainability science.

Two years ago, I was a susceptible individual assessing a future in sustainability science in light of many factors that could have resulted in a quick exit from the field. At the forefront of my mind, what exactly does a degree in sustainability entail? I come from a life sciences background so while I understand to a certain extent what biologists and ecologists study, what exactly do sustainability scientists study; what would I "sustain?" To the sustainability student, questions like "what are you studying" become antagonizing when they are coupled with "is sustainability science just learning how to go green?" An early mentor, however, was able to help me make sense of the many perspectives and worldviews within the field. Through challenging interactions with sustainability scientists and practitioners, I became convinced that the field was more than simply "studying recycling," it was a field dedicated to addressing the "wicked" problems of our time. In my mind, I had negotiated the factors that might drive susceptible individuals away from the field and soon became excited for an intense exposure to the concepts of sustainability.

What started as excitement for a new discipline; however, quickly turned into frustration. While my program attempted to overcome the ossification of stand-alone academic departments, what seemed to result was a haphazard introduction to entirely foreign theoretical and methodological frameworks. In my first year, I began to question what the skills of a sustainability scientist were and how my instruction was providing me with the appropriate theories and methods to address "wicked" sustainability problems. More importantly, I was concerned how the knowledge and skills I was supposedly gaining would help me achieve my own professional and academic goals.

I found out my frustrations were not unique and that sustainability scientists are currently addressing these very concerns. While still a work in progress, the field has taken a first step towards developing key competencies that enable students and practitioners to appropriately address sustainability challenges (2). While the competencies of sustainability science have been identified, it remains a daunting task to find sufficient theoretical and methodological inputs. This challenge is overcome only with the help of vetted sustainability scientists who have likewise struggled, yet have emerged prepared to address real world problems.

From my experience, exposed students and infectious researchers and practitioners of sustainability science encounter one additional challenge, navigating the tension between use-driven and theory-driven research. Researchers and academics are required to explore social-ecological systems and produce reliable results, but they cannot do so from their ivory tower. Practitioners need to address on-the-ground, contextual problems, but action without an understanding of complex nature-society interactions may lead to inappropriate responses and unintended consequences. From my disciplinary background, I have found it difficult negotiating not only what the output of my research will be, but also who will benefit from it. The ability of sustainability science to bridge knowledge creation and informed action provides members of the field the flexibility and power to address urgent human needs. Individuals must recognize, however, that as both a fundamental and an applied research, sustainability science is unlike traditional disciplines or sectors.

Nobody promised me that studying sustainability would be easy, but then again, nobody warned me of the pitfalls associated with the field, either. The field has grown exponentially over the last few decades, yet the sampling of challenges I have described here are real and may ultimately hinder the continued growth of the field. For this field to continue to progress, it is my opinion that the challenges described here that impact the exit rates of susceptible, exposed, and infectious individuals within sustainability science must be acknowledged in order to be successfully negotiated.


1. Bettencourt LMA, Kaur J (2011) Evolution and structure of sustainability science. Proc Natl Acad Sci 108:19540-19545.

2. Wiek A, Withycombe L, Redman CL (2011). Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development. Sustain Sci 6:203-218.

Contributor's Biography Colin Kunzweiler is a graduate student in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. His research explores the perceived risk and adaptation strategies of residents of Maricopa County, Arizona regarding mosquito-borne infectious diseases.