Is there a science of sustainability, or does it remain a catch-all category for a motley collection of scientific studies, policy efforts, and causes that encourage a harmonious relationship between humans and the natural world? 

In a study published in PNAS, a team led by SFI External Professor Luis Bettencourt does the math and concludes that sustainability became a legitimate scientific field just over a decade ago, that it is a rapidly growing field with a geographically diverse community of contributors, and that it merges fields that had not been merged before.

In the study, Bettencourt and collaborator Jasleen Kaur of Indiana University assembled the products of the 36-year history of sustainable development – some 20,000 academic papers written by 37,000 distinct authors representing 174 countries and over 2,200 cities, all published between 1974 and 2010.

Then, employing concepts and tools from an emerging field known as "the science of science,” they analyzed the evolution of distinct study authors, their geographic distributions, the discipline's footprint within scientific disciplines, the structure and evolution of sustainability science's collaboration network, and other indicators.

They conclude that the field "has indeed become cohesive over the last decade, sharing large-scale collaboration networks to which most authors now belong, and producing a new conceptual and technical unification that spans the globe."

“We find that around the year 2000 the work in this area had coalesced to the point where most contributors and clusters of contributors were connected into a single, global collaboration network, and the field was producing and drawing from unified sets of concepts and theories,” says Bettencourt.

While specialized fields such as physics or chemistry have generally been concentrated in a relatively few cities in developed nations, sustainability science is widely distributed internationally. Countries producing noteworthy sustainability publications included Australia, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Brazil, China, India, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, and Turkey. Productive cities included London, Stockholm, Wageningen in the Netherlands, Seattle, and Madison, Wisconsin.

A wide variety of disciplines contribute to the emerging field, as well. Social sciences accounts for 34 percent of the output, followed by biology with 23. 3 percent and engineering at 21.6 percent.

Sustainability continues to be fast-growing field. The researchers estimated the field's growth rate, finding that the number of distinct authors doubling every 8.3 years.

“This evidence bodes well for the continued impact and longevity of sustainability,” Bettencourt says.

The work is supported by a National Science Foundation.

Read the PNAS paper (November 22, 2011)

Read a review of the paper in PNAS (December 12, 2011)

Read the R&D Magazine article (November 28, 2011)

Read the Los Alamos National Lab news release (November 23, 2011)

Read the Indiana University news release (November 21, 2011)