Sustainability Science

Norms must change in order for academia to walk the talk on sustainability, new paper argues

Centre researchers held workshops to discuss tensions they encounter as doctoral students in Sustainability Science. In the photo, lead author Emmy Wassénius is writing notes on a whiteboard.

Sustainability research is rarely sustainable, neither for the planet nor for academics, argues a new paper. In it, researchers call for a rethink of current norms and practices

Story highlights

  • Researchers are expected to “do it all, and more of it": travel to conferences and fieldwork, communicate their research and advise policymaking
  • These expectations are unsustainable for planet and people
  • Norms around current academic practices need to be reimagined

Researchers are often expected to do much more than just their research: they should write papers with high policy impact, be skilled communicators, and travel for international conferences and fieldwork.

In a commentary piece recently published in the journal Sustainability Science, early-career scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Centre challenge these expectations, for example on flights.

“Routine travel has become the implicit and explicit norm, where attendance at conferences worldwide, overseas fieldwork, and the need for international mobility to secure academic positions are seen as given, especially as an early-career academic”, the authors say.

The paper is co-written by centre researchers Emmy Wassénius, Anne Charlotte Bunge, Mary Scheuermann, Kajsa Resare Sahlin, Agnes Pranindita, Moa Ohlsson, Abigayil Blandon, Chandrakant Singh, Kristin Malmcrona Friberg and Patricia Villarrubia‑Gómez. The authors used workshops and conversations they had regarding current tensions they felt as doctoral candidates in Sustainability Science and general academia, as a basis for their paper.

We are now at a critical point of creative destruction where we can dismantle existing practices and radically reimagine academia to align with our sustainability values

Quote from the authors of the article

They argue that many of the current norms in academia are unsustainable; for the planet, but also for researchers themselves as multiple demands leave them overstretched.

Creative destruction

The authors propose that the current trends in academia can be seen as phases of the adaptive cycle, a common concept used in resilience and sustainability research which originated from both economics and ecology. As such, the paper uses the framework of the adaptive cycle to explore how academia has changed over time. Up until now, the authors claim that the academic system has been entrenched in several unsustainable patterns, in what is defined as the ‘conservation phase’. But recently, this academic status quo has been shaken by disturbances, such as the pandemic and climate change crises. This has led academia to enter into a new ‘release phase’, which opens up for renewal and reorganisation.

“We are now at a critical point of creative destruction where we can dismantle existing practices and radically reimagine academia to align with our sustainability values”, say the authors.


Using the concept of the adaptive cycle, the authors propose that academia is going through a period of ‘creative destruction’.

Walk the talk

For academics to be able to walk the talk, and align their professional and personal life with scientific evidence of what is sustainable, the authors make three key suggestions:

  1. Adopt satellite or multi-hub conferences to maintain in-person networking, while shortening traveling distances.
  2. Implement research hubs in different geographical contexts with increased connection and accessibility to online meeting tools. This would abate the “fly-in-fly-out” culture most prevalent amongst Global North researchers, and allow for local expertise to flourish.
  3. Rethink what knowledge is, how it is created and assessed, and its wider implications for academia.

Finally, the authors urge people to be guided by their values and to bring uncomfortable conversations around international mobility forward. At the same time, it is necessary to confront these tensions with kindness – as researchers reimagine what knowledge is and how it is created.

Read "Creative destruction in academia: a time to reimagine practices in alignment with sustainability values" »

Published: 2023-11-14

News & events