Sustainability Education Program FAQs

Q: What is sustainability science?

A: Sustainability science is a framework of decision-making that uses interdisciplinary science within a defined region to examine and solve problems related to the interrelationship of environment and economic development.

The approach is neither pure science nor applied science. Instead, scientific disciplines are tools for problem solving, with the scientific approach defined by the problems being addressed rather than the particular discipline employed.

Sustainability science is an approach utilized at the regional or local level, and it is necessarily place-based.

Sustainability science utilizes the best of science and stakeholder input to drive decisions. Grounding decisions in real world, concrete situations brings the relationship between these factors into view.

Tracking the results and impact of these respective decisions allows for short-term corrections to policy and technology. Thus, the iterative process can inform and influence the desired outcome in the medium-to long-term.

Q: Why does the foundation consider sustainability science a priority?

A:  The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation utilizes a sustainability science approach in our programs due to its rigorous scientific framework, interdisciplinary approach, and focus on the real-world challenges of balancing economic, social, and environmental trade-offs.

Q: How does the foundation's sustainability science program relate to Cynthia and George Mitchell’s philanthropic investments at HARC, Rice University, and the National Academy of Sciences?

A: In 1996, Cynthia and George Mitchell provided a $1 million grant to support the original scientific work on sustainability at the National Academy of Sciences. This effort involved a high-level interdisciplinary team of scientists, the Board on Sustainable Development, to examine the scientific underpinnings of the sustainability concept. The resulting book, Our Common Journey, was published in 1999 and communicated the Board’s results and helped launch the sustainability science field. 

The Mitchells followed their original gift with a $20 million endowment to establish the George and Cynthia Mitchell Endowment for Sustainability Science, making this new field of study a permanent effort at the National Academy of Sciences. 

George founded the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), which, after a strategic refocus in 2001, aligned around a mission to operationalize the sustainability science approach in Texas using the research-to-action framework set forth in Our Common Journey. At about the same time, George endowed a chair at Rice University's Shell Center for Sustainability.

Q: How does the sustainability science framework influence the foundation’s grantmaking decisions?

A: The emphasis in foundation programs is to gather and utilize the most balanced and current scientific knowledge of an issue to inform philanthropic program design.

Scientific knowledge, combined with savvy political information and risk management, drives programmatic strategy. Strategies are constantly refined to capture new information, thus utilizing a dynamic, adaptive management approach that is a hallmark of sustainability science.

Q: Why is a Sustainability Science program important to the foundation?

A:  The sustainability science approach to solving complex environmental and social problems continues to be promising, but it needs to be widely disseminated to influence decision makers and community leaders in order to create widespread benefit.

An initial step in expanding the use of sustainability science is to educate a new generation of future leaders about the concept and its application. The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation’s Sustainability Education Program supports these science practices by establishing new academic programs in the university community in Texas.

This approach aims to bring together scholarship and practice, global and local perspectives, and disciplines across natural and social sciences. Importantly, sustainability science is not defined as either a purely academic exercise or an applied research program. Instead, as explained by Bill Clark in 2007 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the field is “defined by the problems it addresses rather than by the disciplines it employs, advancing both knowledge and action by creating a dynamic bridge between the two.

Q: Are there college-level academic programs that focus on sustainability science?

A: There has been a recent emergence of a small group of universities and colleges committed to developing curricula, experiential learning opportunities, and campus-based programs on sustainability science.

The leader in this effort is Arizona State University, with its School of Sustainability. Other U.S. programs have been established at Harvard, Portland State, Kean, Cornell, and the University of Michigan, among others. The Shell Center at Rice University includes some interdisciplinary sustainability work and student-led initiatives. Several Texas universities have developed so-called sustainability programs, but the foundation-funded sustainability science initiative is a first for the University of Texas System’s institutions.  

Q: Why is a university-based network of sustainability programs needed in Texas?

A:  With the stresses on its uniquely diverse natural systems—from expanding development, industrial and agricultural activities, rural and urban demographic mix, and associated increases in demand for resources, goods, and services—the state provides an ideal “laboratory” for studying sustainability science and using its approach to solve real problems. The link between the CGMF, the National Academy of Sciences, and the university community in Texas is a foundation for supporting the creation of a statewide, state-of-the-art, university-based network of sustainability science programs.

An important emphasis in the Sustainability Education Program is the experiential component of the academic programs. Sustainability science offers a fresh way to view intractable social and environmental challenges, but this perspective is best utilized to examine real-world problems in a particular geography with its associated natural resource challenges. 

Faculty develop curricula and course work around a particular topic or issue and design a site-specific project to utilize the lessons from the course to solve a practical problem for an experiential learning opportunity for an interdisciplinary group of students. 

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