Quiet collaboration; big impact

I have written about collaboration in a number of blogs, focusing on its criticality to helping society achieve sustainability. I remain convinced of this and always want to shine the light on glowing examples of collaboration in action. One such example is the National Academies’ Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability (STS), of which I have been privileged to be a member over the last six years. 

Roundtables at the National Academies are unusual critters. They deliberately bring together disparate experts from government, academia, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the private sector to debate and discuss challenges, put together workshops to flesh out these challenges, commission studies to find solutions, and create and build an ongoing dialogue where challenges can become opportunities for solutions. 

For example, the Roundtable has become the center point of the rigorous debate and ongoing national dialogue around the food-water-energy nexus, which has also been called the “stress nexus” of sustainable development. Over the last five years, the group has come together in numerous sessions to address this and related topics, publishing a series of reports and publications available for download on the STS Program web site that significantly advance the dialogue around these sustainability challenges. 

The success of the Roundtable is largely attributable to its unique role as the interface between senior science advisers for the major federal agencies e.g., U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), U.S. Department of Defense and leading experts on specific topics from NGOs, the private sector, and academia. This collaboration infuses fresh ideas for solutions, enhancing the promise of our collective future.

The fruits of this cross-sector collaboration are evident in the broader achievements of the Roundtable as well. Specifically, I would call readers’ attention to two reports that promise to have dramatic impact on the United States contributions to global sustainable development.  The first is the so-called “Green Book,” Sustainability and the U.S. EPA, and the second is the so-called “Linkages” study, Sustainability for the Nation: Resource Connections and Governance Linkages, of the U.S. federal government.

In the “Green Book,” the committee authors—of which I am proud to be one—laid out a path forward for the U.S. EPA to more effectively incorporate sustainability into its processes and decision-making strategies. These recommendations were based on the best practices and experiences of organizations around the world, including governmental, nongovernmental, and private-sector entities. At its core, the “Green Book” recommends setting clear goals and objectives for the agency; developing key metrics, training and tools to support sustainability efforts; and ensuring public reporting of progress. 

The adoption of sustainable practices at the EPA sounds simple, but it is actually quite complex.  Despite challenges with its regulatory mandates, the Agency has jumped headfirst into the opportunity, holding 200 stakeholder meetings around the country, including employee sessions in various regions to gather feedback. Notably, it also named its first Chief Sustainability Officer, Bob Perciasepe, reporting to the Administrator, to take responsibility for implementation of the proposals put forth in the book. Though full-scale adoption of these recommendations will take years, the EPA’s trajectory toward achieving more sustainable outcomes is clear and promising. 

In fact, I believe that the “Green Book” will have transformative impact at the EPA, much like the 1983 “Red Book,” Risk Assessment in the Federal Government: Managing the Process, did in shifting the EPA toward a risk assessment and risk management approach to regulatory decision-making. Only time will tell, but I am optimistic that a positive impact is already being seen and that the EPA will become a much more effectively enable sustainable development as a result of this work.

Although a different challenge, the “Linkages” study had very similar promise: it examined the entire apparatus of the U.S. government and defined a path forward for improving decision-making related to sustainability actions and programs. Breaking down silos across agencies was prescribed as a key first step, and it is one that the Roundtable has championed for years with great success. Indeed, this report could never have been written without all the goodwill and collective work of the various agencies at the Roundtable. But further, this study, which benefited from the contributions of a variety of stakeholders throughout the process, resulted in a consensus document that provided recommendations to the federal government on how to approach complex sustainability challenges.

My personal hope is that this study will lead to again having a presidential-level focus on sustainable development policy, similar to that which the U.S. had in the 1990s. The last decade of the 20th century was a golden era for defining common challenges and solutions—as well as the proper role of the U.S.—in helping the world achieve sustainable development, while also looking out for the triple bottom line for the U.S. economy, its people and the environment, and it would be outstanding to recreate that focus in today’s environment and moving forward.

Despite these achievements, I would estimate that, unfortunately, very few people know about the National Academies Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability, and even fewer know about the role of the Mitchell Foundation in endowing this group.  However, I would argue that the collaborations forged and the work-products achieved by the STS Roundtable will have dramatic impact over the next decade. Together, we can spread the word. Join me in putting a little spotlight on this pocket of collaboration and innovation, and in doing so, help the world take one more step forward in driving sustainable development.


Neil C. Hawkins, Sc.D. is Corporate Vice President, Sustainability, The Dow Chemical Company. Follow him on Twitter @NeilCHawkins.

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