Doing science, creating new knowledge, in German: Wissen schaffen, is a social activity. As all social activities, it can be done sustainably. Or not.
The Brundtland Commission, convened by the United Nations (UN) in 1983, used the term “sustainability” in its 1987 report as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ Since then its use has been mostly used in he context of sustainable policy or sustainable use of natural resources – with a similar breadth as words like “ecological”, which are now common in the language of advertising. It was no surprise that I was confronted with opposition when I used the word in a somewhat different context, namely in the context of science and research. As scientists, I am interested that my profession is done “sustainably”. In Webster’s word-book a meaning of the word “to sustain” is given by “being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged” for the example of “sustainable agriculture”. Insert for the term “resource” the term “trust in the ability of science of generating reliable knowledge”, and the meaning of “sustainable science” becomes clear. Or, in a simpler manner: A scientific institution or a professor is doing science sustainably, when some decades later the public and stakeholders will assign to their former students the same authority for unraveling and explaining complex phenomena.
Studying classical Chinese language or the dramatic living of Abraham Lincoln is most likely done sustainably. Sustainability here means that the present science will have a bearing on future science, in an enriching way, but not in a limiting manner. The present science will not inhibit the legitimacy of future science. The public will be excited about future knowledge as it is about present newly constructed insights.
Research about the forest die back in Germany may serve as an example at the other end of the spectrum. This research was not done sustainably. The science of forest damages was in the 1980s heavily politicized, and used as support for a specific preconceived "good" policy of environmental protection. The resulting overselling and dramatization broke down in the 1990s, and news about adverse developments in German forests is now a hard sell in Germany. An observer wrote in 2004: "The damage for the scientists is enormous. Nobody believes them any longer." Of course, the damage was not only limited to the forest researchers, but also to other environmental scientists and politicians as well.
And climate research? Often it is done sustainably, but sometimes not. Some institutions and some publicly visible scientists are known for simplifying and dramatizing statements of what one would expect from NGOs, e.g., "Coal-fired power plants are death factories." A communication of drama is intended to "move", to initiate "action". The science is supposed to support a preconceived political agenda of something "good".
Overselling takes place in the triangle between policy, media and science. It goes with a risk : The risk for policy-makers is in the possibility that the goals set in this manner cannot be achieved, the ‘‘loss of legitimacy due to taking on too much.’’ The media primarily fear the ‘‘loss of public attention,’’ due to concepts and conceptual fields becoming worn out. For science, the principal risk is the ‘‘loss of credibility due to the particular dynamic of the catastrophe metaphor’’, or other characteristic misleading concept.
Exploiting short-term "advantages" in the public-political discourse by simplification and dramatization for furthering a pre-conceived agenda helps generating attention and short-lived support for this agenda. But this attention and support but can hardly be maintained for a long time as required in case of climate change policies. Attributing the hurricane Katrina to climate change made successfully headlines, and depicting global warming as an uninterrupted continuous upward trend made the understanding of the concept of global warming easier. But, later, we have to pay a prize. There were no more Hurricane-disasters like Katrina's since 2005, and warming is stagnating in the last years. Both facts are not surprising for the climate researcher. They are consistent with the scientific understanding of the phenomenon named "Global Warming". However they are at odds with the simplifying-dramatizing communication strategy and with the resulting medial construction.
The maximization of short-term utility goes with a prize: The public will understand that it has been manipulated, and that it had not honestly been advised by its publicly funded social institution "science". Admittedly, manipulated for something, which has been perceived by certain elites as "good" – but what is the principal difference in this respect between Greenpeace and Exxon? The dramatic decay of trust into the IPCC, following the illegal publication of e-mails at CRU in November 2009, the inacceptable sloppiness in preparing some statements, for instance about the future of Himalayan glaciers, in a report of the 4th Assessment report of the IPCC, was not really surprising.
The effect is twofold. First, the public will no longer believe in the "story", or consider it merely entertainment – and people will effectively become sceptics. Certainly the contrary of the originally intended effect! Second, the public will be unable to distinguish the social institution "science" and value-based NGOs – with the latter being considerably cheaper in delivering the same politically useful knowledge claims!
Thus, those institutions and individuals, who engage in unsustainably practice, cause damage to climate science as a whole - and the very good "product" of this science, which is scientifically solid and relevant for society, is devalued. It is the authority of serious scientists, their institutions and their work who is "depleted" or even "permanently damaged", to use Webster's characterization of "non-sustainabiliy".