SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
  10 October 2013
Volume 14 Issue 10

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How Can Sustainability Be Made “Real?”

Trina von Stackelberg (E Risk Sciences), Cynthia Stahl (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), Emma Lavoie (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), Alan Samel (DuPont Crop Protection)

This is a question posed by many within and outside of SETAC.  The concept of sustainability has become something of a buzzword and is frequently invoked, but seems to take on different meanings and interpretations depending on the audience.  The Advisory Group on Sustainability drafted the Berlin Declaration on Sustainability that the SETAC World Council formally adopted in 2012.  But what are the next steps?  The authors represent an informal group within SETAC that has been discussing the content of session presentations at recent SETAC meetings and whether our meetings facilitate the SETAC mission of “… development and use of multidisciplinary scientific principles and practices leading to sustainable environmental quality.” 

With a focus on sustainability comes a focus on systems-based approaches (clumsy solutions to wicked problems) rather than reductionist science (elegant solutions to tame problems) and analyses that integrate across scientific disciplines.   Wicked problems are those that are difficult to define because there are many different stakeholder perspectives, have no single right answer, and that require learning through iteration in order to derive solutions (Rittel and Webber 1973). 

Tackling tame problems (for example, determining a NOEC for a contaminant in different fish species) has been a primary focus of most professional scientific societies, including SETAC, and this approach remains a prominent focus of SETAC’s membership.  However, addressing only tame problems is not sufficient for SETAC to remain relevant in complex social-ecological environments. Those situations present us with the more vital questions of how science is used in decision making, which is almost always a wicked problem. 

At the SETAC North America 2011 meeting in Boston, a session on “Debating with the SETAC Stars:  Wicked Problems – Sustainability” introduced to SETAC the importance of distinguishing between traditional science work (tame problems/reductionist science)) and how science gets used in policy- and decision-making (wicked problems/systems based).  The distinguishing feature is the necessity of applying social values to wicked problems.  At the 2012 meeting in Long Beach, a follow-up session on “Debating with the SETAC Stars:  Wicked Problems – Climate Change, continued this discussion about how using science is different from generating science knowledge. 

Current annual meeting session tracks are heavily focused on discussing tame problems and elegant solutions.  One possibility for deciding on modified session tracks is to offer one or two wicked problem session tracks in addition to the other tame problem session tracks.  These wicked problem session tracks both encompass assessment and policy issues addressed by SETAC in the past and serve to expand the topics into more interdisciplinary areas.  Some possibilities for alternate session track names are “Social-Ecological Landscapes,” “Risk Management and Policy Decision-Making,” and “Integrative and Holistic Ecology.”  We propose that making modifications to our standard session tracks allows for development and use of multidisciplinary practices within the Society, a step toward making sustainability within SETAC “real.”  We invite your participation in these discussions, whether through the SETAC North America Science Committee or the Advisory Group on Sustainability.  Any SETAC member interested in participating in this process or providing comments is welcome to contact the authors. 
The four authors have been discussing whether the session tracks represent the subject matter that people wish to present and wish to learn about.  The four of us represent government, academia and industry and have been working together in our roles in the North America (SNA-SC) and Global Science Committee (SWC-SC) and Advisory Group on Sustainability (AGS).  Additional members of the SNA-SC and AGS have contributed to this discussion.  This article is part two of two articles addressing a specific question but enhancing an ongoing dialog about SETAC meeting content in relation to the SETAC mission and to the discussion on sustainability-related topics in SETAC.  This topic and article highlights the value of discussions that bridge committees and Advisory Groups.

Rittel, H.W.J. and M.M. Webber (1973) Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences 4, 155-169, available from:

Authors’ contact information:;;;

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