Environmental Challenges Require
‘New Kind of Science’ from Academia

In an essay published in BioScience, a group of 22 environmental leaders — including three from F&ES — challenge the academic community to make “institutional innovations” to better address the challenges of our time.
In a 1998 essay, esteemed marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco called on the scientific community to create “a new social contract” that more adequately addressed the most urgent environmental challenges of our time, including those related to climate change, pollution, and public health.

Yet nearly two decades later the academic community still has not adequately answered the challenge, a group of 22 leaders from academic institutions and NGOs — including three from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies — writes in a new essay published in the journal BioScience.

The co-authors include F&ES Dean Indy Burke; Professor Brad Gentry, Associate Dean for Professional Practice; and Charles Bettigole, Director of the F&ES-based Ucross High Plains Stewardship Initiative. The lead author is Bonnie Keeler of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

“We cannot afford to wait decades more for universities to provide the infrastructure and foster the culture needed to turn ideas into action,” the authors write.

As the complexity and urgency of the planet’s environmental challenges continue to grow, the environmental leaders called for academia to make “institutional innovations” in five key areas:

  • Produce not just professors but environmental leaders
  • Cultivate a culture that values use-inspired research
  • Move ideas into action faster
  • Put people at the center of environmental science
  • Reimagine academic structures to encourage innovation 

“Our essay reflects the legacy and emphasis of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies — bringing science to solutions through our scholarship, our teaching and training, and through engagement and practice,” said Burke. “We have an unprecedented opportunity to serve society and to help universities be regarded as more highly relevant and critical for the future.”

Gentry added: “Especially at a time when science is under attack, it is critical that the knowledge it generates is connected to solving pressing public issues — as a result, universities need to spend more time building pathways for using science to address real problems.” 

“While there’s much work to do, being a part of the F&ES community makes me optimistic,” Bettigole said. “I hear the values outlined in this essay echoed every day among students, who are eager to engage with cutting-edge environmental issues, and put their skills and scholarship to work in real time with on-the-ground partners.”

Although the authors note signs of progress — including a host of university-based partnerships that link solutions with policymakers and other “end users” — they warn that isolated initiatives will not deliver solutions at the scale needed.

“We are living in times of revolution on many fronts,” they conclude. “Perhaps one of them can be to reinvent our centers of learning — to ensure their relevance and to harness their power to address the critical challenges of our time.”
– Kevin Dennehy    kevin.dennehy@yale.edu    203 436-4842
PUBLISHED: May 25, 2017
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.