Luís Bettencourt, Jasleen Kaur

Paper #: 11-02-004

The concepts of sustainable development have experienced extraordinary success since their advent in the 1980s. They are now an integral part of the agenda of governments and corporations and their goals have become central to the mission of research laboratories and universities worldwide. However, it remains unclear how far the field has progressed as a scientific discipline, especially given its ambitious agenda of integrating theory, applied science and policy, making it relevant for development globally and generating a new interdisciplinary synthesis across fields as diverse as ecology, the social sciences and engineering. To address these questions we assembled a corpus of scholarly publications in the field and analyzed its temporal evolution, geographic distribution, disciplinary composition and collaboration structure. We show that sustainability science has been growing explosively since the late 1980s when foundational publications in the field increased its pull to new authors and intensified their interactions. The field has an unusual geographic footprint, combining contributions and connecting through collaboration cities and nations at very different levels of development. Its decomposition into traditional disciplines reveals its emphasis on the management of human, social and ecological systems seen primarily from an engineering and policy perspective. Finally we show that the integration of these perspectives has created a new field only in recent years as judged by the emergence of a giant component of scientific collaboration. These developments demonstrate the existence of a growing scientific field of sustainability science as an unusual, inclusive and ubiquitous scientific practice and bode well for its continued impact and longevity.