Collaboration Key to Advancing Progress in Climate, Environment, and Sustainability 

Social and physical scientists from across the campus met on October 6 at the Summit on Building Interdisciplinary Collaborative Research on Sustainability: Incorporating Social and Behavioral Science to discuss how to increase and deepen collaboration across disciplines to advance research on climate, environment, and sustainability (CES). The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is one of the nation’s leaders in CES research, and the summit put the breadth and excellence of UIUC’s research portfolio squarely in the spotlight.

Madhu Khanna portrait
Institute for Sustainability, Energy, & Environment (iSEE) Director Madhu Khanna

Madhu Khanna, Director of the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE), together with Eva Pomerantz, Director of the Center for Social and Behavioral Science (CSBS), shared how their units are working together to build and support interdisciplinary research teams. Khanna set the stage for the day’s discussion by noting that societal grand challenges such as climate change cannot be solved by one discipline alone. There is growing recognition that social scientists can contribute to understanding how people receive and respond to information and why they do or do not take action.  

Center for Social & Behavioral Science (CSBS) Director Eva Pomerantz

Kelvin Droegemeier, a professor of atmospheric sciences and Special Advisor to the Chancellor for Science and Policy, offered a powerful example: Despite advances in technology to detect and report storms, the annual number of deaths from tornadoes has been largely unchanged for decades.

“We have great science in many fields, but there is a disconnect between the latest findings and policy,” said Droegemeier. “We need transdisciplinary research including social scientists, political scientists, behavioral, and social psychologists, as well as policy makers.” 

Similarly, Andrew Leakey, a professor of plant biology and of crop sciences and Director of CABBI, one of four Bioenergy Research Centers in the country, noted that social scientists are critical to meaningful engagement with farmers, as well as industry partners and consumers of biofuel and other sustainable bioproducts the center is producing.  

Equally critical to advancing CES is developing a workforce with skills suitable for clean energy and sustainability jobs. Richard Benton, a professor of labor and employment relations and Executive Director of the Illinois Climate Jobs Institute, observed that such work requires bringing multiple stakeholders together to develop strategies that support both clean energy and employment. He stressed that it will be important to change public perception that eliminating fossil fuels will result in job loss, focusing instead on how development of clean energy will lead to the creation of new jobs.

Pomerantz further emphasized how social scientists are key to addressing public perception and developing supporting strategies to build interest in clean energy jobs, noting that social scientists study how to best talk with stakeholders and community groups and to communicate data to society. She recommended that social and behavioral scientists be brought into research projects from the beginning so that how to best communicate and implement solutions can be studied. 

Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences Prof. Carena van Riper

In the first of a series of spotlight presentations, Carena van Riper, a professor of natural resources and environmental sciences, found that investing time early in her research project to develop partnerships with community groups, understand their perspectives, and build trust resulted in behavior change around landscaping and land management practices. George Deltas, a professor of economics, then shared his research findings on industry compliance and adoption of sustainable, environmentally friendly practices, including a positive role for regulation in incentivizing adoption of pollution prevention technologies.

Leona Yi-Fan Su, a professor of advertising, ended the spotlight presentations with a discussion of her research that uses social media tools, including Twitter analytics, to reveal public sentiment towards CES issues. She found that humor is a good communication tool, correlating with support for issues such as lower carbon emission. These presentations highlighted the unique approaches and expertise of the campus social sciences faculty.  

iSEE and CSBS jointly sponsored the summit, which brought together social and physical scientists from five colleges to explore mechanisms to encourage collaboration between social scientists and physical scientists in CES fields.