Nicola Kemp, Stephen Martin and Simon Spooner
September 2023

More than the sum of their parts? Interdisciplinarity and sustainability: Policy, practice and professionalism

Over half a century ago, an editorial in an academic journal suggested that a specialist ended up ‘knowing more and more about less and less’.  By contrast, and in the context of a now highly interconnected and uncertain world, the notion of interdisciplinarity raises the need of learning ‘more about more’ than such specialisation allows. A growing shared concern about the multiple and multifaceted economic, social, and ecological issues facing society increasingly and urgently raises questions about the purposes and appropriate responses of the professions. This webinar seeked to catalyse such a debate.

Sustainable development – meeting the needs of present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – is a defining challenge of the twenty-first century. It is imperative that all professionals in this country develop and exemplify the skills of sustainable living and professional practice.

Against the background of pressing sustainability issues, there is evidence of increasing interest in more integrative understanding and holistic management of problems in policy making, echoed by more interest in interdisciplinary professional practice. Yet, interdisciplinarity seems to be everywhere and nowhere: it is in vogue in science, society, and economy, but the term is quite misty, foggy, and shadowy. Similarly, Klein (one of the leading theorists in the field) says ‘interdisciplinarity is a concept of wide appeal (but) is also one of wide confusion’.  Reviewing the literature, the notion and practice of interdisciplinarity has several interrelated dimensions. These can be summarised as philosophical, definitional, motivational, and operational. 

As sustainability issues rise further on the national and international agendas - reflected in media reports almost every day - the links between (say) energy consumption, climate change, loss of biodiversity, and poverty become more evident and the need for multifaceted perspectives and integrative approaches to issues become more accepted – reflected in the common parlance (if not the practice) of ‘joined up thinking’ and ‘joined up policy’

This event featured expert perspectives on the need for interdisciplinarity in the environmental sciences and sustainability, and how education can support the development of environmental scientists with the skills needed to deliver systems change for the benefit of people and nature.