Editorial - 2013 | volume 9 | issue 1

Go to: TOC | next article >>

Sustainability social science at the applied science and engineering universities

Maurie J. Cohen
Editor, Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy, USA

Keyword: colleges and universities, educational institutions, sustainability, organizational behavior, social behavior

Citation: Cohen M. 2012. Sustainability social science at the applied science and engineering universities. Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy 9(1):1-3. Published online Dec 19, 2012. http:///archives/vol9iss1/editorial.mjcohen.html


The applied science and engineering universities have long occupied an enigmatic niche in the spectrum of higher education. Many of these institutions trace their lineage to the mechanics’ institutes that played a formative role in the Industrial Revolution. From early on, supercilious Victorian elites derided technical instruction as inappropriate for hallowed academic halls and incompatible with classical education. As a result, the established universities spurned technical training and proponents of these insurgent pedagogies, often with the support of local manufacturing interests, created their own institutions.1

By the latter decades of the nineteenth century, most major industrial centers had a technical institute. In the United States, these institutions experienced heady growth during, and especially after, World War II.2 Administrators seeking resources with which to realize newfound ambitions while serving national political objectives encouraged close collaboration with the rapidly expanding military-industrial complex. During the 1960s, the applied science and engineering universities became frequent targets of social critics who denounced them as handmaidens of militarization. The following decades, though, brought forth the end of the Cold War, the dawn of the Internet age, the advent of increasingly ubiquitous computing, and, most recently, the onset of a challenging economy. These circumstances have given the applied science and engineering universities new—and in some cases spectacular—appeal.

In short, the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines have become cool, or at least a source of personal competitive advantage. There is a palpable sense among students—and I see it every day at the New Jersey Institute of Technology—that a diploma that discretely communicates that a job candidate has passed multiple courses in calculus, as well as physics and organic chemistry, offers a valuable leg up, even in fields that do not require such skills. Combine these circumstances with public awareness of the extent to which crony capitalism—and outright criminality—bedevils the once-lauded financial sectors and it becomes apparent why even a beneficiary of Wall Street largesse like New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has championed establishment of a new applied science and engineering university, Cornell NYC Tech.

It is difficult to get a firm grip on the number of these institutions in the United States—or for that matter the world—as most compilations (e.g., US News and World Report and Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities) comingle them with colleges and schools of engineering that are constituent parts of comprehensive universities. A list that I did obtain counts approximately 30 applied science and engineering universities in the United States; internationally the number is probably in the vicinity of 100.3

Given the outsized role that these institutions have played as crucibles of industrialization over nearly two centuries, it is ironic that they have today become notable havens for sustainability social science.4 The incipient field integrates across ecological economics, science and technology studies, environmental sociology, environmental political economy, and innovation and foresight studies and applies these perspectives against a background understanding of earth system science—in particular the notion of planetary limits—and the need for a more globally equitable distribution of resources. Research focuses on the design of sustainable systems of production and consumption, the formulation of transition strategies for complex sociotechnical systems, the scaling up of grassroots social innovations, and the fostering of solidaristic and sustainable local living economies. Seminal contributions to this emergent field include Daly (1997), Raskin et al. (2002), Speth (2008), Boyle & Simms (2009), and Jackson (2010). Sustainability social scientists are increasingly questioning the warrant of continuous economic growth and are seeking to chart alternative models of societal organization predicated on sufficiency (as opposed to merely materials and energy efficiency) and high regard for individual and collective well-being.5

While scholars working on these issues are not predominantly based in the applied science and engineering universities (this would be unlikely given the relatively small number of these institutions), their extensive presence is striking and raises questions about why this might be the case.

One possible explanation begins with the observation that the social sciences occupy a peripheral orbit at the applied science and engineering universities and this combination of tolerance and benign neglect creates a hospitable home for interdisciplinary social science scholarship.6 Unlike “normal” institutions of higher education, these institutions do not typically maintain a full array of social-science specializations and do not imbue discipline-bound social scientific knowledge with especially privileged status. Recruitment, promotion, and other personnel decisions are guided by institutional requirements that the social sciences complement a rigorous technical education and shed light on issues at the interface between technoscience and society. Disciplinary social scientists are apt to regard such circumstances as an affront because their brand of knowledge is not, as in the small worlds of, say, sociology or political science, regarded as having exceptional value. However, interdisciplinary social scientists are likely to find relaxation of disciplinary constraints quite refreshing and to take advantage of the intellectual freedom provided to pursue integrative, systemic, and, above all, problem-focused research.7

So which applied science and engineering universities are particularly favorable contexts for sustainability social science? In the United States, the most prominent examples are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In Europe, there are thriving groups of sustainability social scientists in the Netherlands (TU Delft and Eindhoven University of Technology), Switzerland (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology-Zurich and Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology-Dübendorf), and Austria (Inter-University Research Centre for Technology, Work and Culture and the Institute of Technology Assessment of the Austrian Academy of Sciences). In addition, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the University of Surrey (UK), Aalborg University (Denmark), and KTH–Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden) support prominent programs.

The exercise that I have engaged in here is admittedly fuzzy and disposed to errors of both omission and commission and I readily acknowledge that I have probably missed a few relevant institutions. For these blunders, I apologize while also encouraging wider engagement in this conversation. The intent is to initiate a process of more expansive inclusion as the incipient field of sustainability social science takes steps toward further institutionalization.


1 I summarize some of this history in Cohen (1999).

2 Because of the distressed financial condition of the country after World War II, most former British polytechnics could not effectively position themselves for military research and either evolved into more comprehensive universities or merged with existing institutions of higher education. Even the venerable University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST)—founded in 1824 and formerly known at different times as the Manchester Mechanics’ Institute, the Manchester Municipal School of Technology, and the Manchester College of Science and Technology—was absorbed in 2004 by the Victoria University of Manchester (more commonly known as the University of Manchester).

3 See http://www.payscale.com/college-salary-report-2013/engineering-schools. What I describe here does not pertain to all applied science and engineering universities, in part because all of them do not have social science researchers actively engaged in publishing for an international audience. The list of relevant institutions in the United States comprises (in alphabetical order) California Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, Case Western Reserve University, Clarkson University, Colorado School of Mines, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, Florida Institute of Technology, Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvey Mudd College, Illinois Institute of Technology, Kettering University, Lawrence Technological University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Michigan Technological University, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Missouri University of Science and Technology, Montana Tech of the University of Montana, New Jersey Institute of Technology, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Oregon Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania College of Technology, Polytechnic Institute of New York University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Southern Polytechnic State University, Stevens Institute of Technology, State University of New York Maritime College, Wentworth Institute of Technology, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Xavier University of Louisiana.

4 The tendency for intellectual innovations to occur outside of established institutional structures is a well-established phenomenon in the history of ideas.

5 Sustainability social science shares some common points of departure with the field of sustainability science (Kates et al. 2001; Clark & Dickson, 2003). Despite sustainability scientists claims of integration across the three domains of sustainability (economic, environmental and social), work to date remains largely centered on the environmental dimension. In particular, this research tends to underplay the role of dominant economic institutions, political power, and especially the pervasive influence of dominant systems of production and consumption (see, e.g., Brown, 2012).

6 It is also probably fair to say, as a general characterization, that social scientists at the applied science and engineering universities are more circumspect than their engineering colleagues about the efficacy of technological interventions (particularly with respect to the management of biophysical systems) and this division further subordinates the status of the social sciences at these institutions.

7 Institutions specializing in agricultural education and research have afforded similar opportunities for sustainability social science. Although the general pattern over the past century has been for former agricultural institutes to become constituent entities of more comprehensive universities, where some autonomy has been afforded, sustainability social science has flourished. The most notable example of this phenomenon is Wageningen University in the Netherlands which has been for the past two decades an important center of innovation in sustainability social science.

Boyle, D. & Simms, A. 2009. The New Economics: A Bigger Picture. London: Earthscan.

Brown, H. 2012. Sustainability science needs to include sustainable consumption. Environment 54(1):20–25.

Clark, W. & Dickson, N. 2003. Sustainability science: the emerging research program. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100(14):8059–8061.

Cohen, M. 1999. Science and society in historical perspective: implications for social theories of risk. Environmental Values 8(2):153–176.

Daly, H. 1997. Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.

Jackson, T. 2009. Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. London: Earthscan.

Kates, R., Clark, W., Corell, R., Hall, J., Jaeger, C., Lowe, I., McCarthy, J., Schellnhuber, H., Bolin, B., Dickson, N., Faucheux, S., Gallopín, G., Grubler, A., Huntley, B., Jager, J., Jodha, N., Kasperson, R., Mabogunje, A., Matson, P., Mooney, H., Moore, B., O’Riordan, T., & Svedlin, U. 2001. Sustainability science. Science 292 (5517):641–642.

Raskin, P., Banuri, T., Gallopín, G., Gutman, P., Hammond, A., Kates, R., & Swart, R. 2002. The Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead. Boston: Stockholm Environment Institute.

Speth, J. 2008. The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Maurie J. Cohen is the editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy. He is also Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science and the Department of Humanities at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Director of both the Graduate Program in Sustainability and Environmental Policy and the Undergraduate Program in Science, Technology, and Society. Dr. Cohen has held prior positions at the University of Leeds, Binghamton University (State University of New York), Mansfield College (Oxford University), and Indiana University. His books include Innovations in Sustainable Consumption: New Economics, Socio-technical Transitions, and Social Practices (in press, with Halina Szejnwald Brown & Philip J. Vergragt) Exploring Sustainable Consumption: Environmental Policy and the Social Sciences (with Joseph Murphy), Risk in the Modern Age: Science, Social Theory, and Environmental Decision Making, and The Exxon Valdez Disaster: Readings on a Modern Social Problem (with J. Steven Picou & Duane Gill). He can be contacted at email: mcohen@adm.njit.edu.

©2013 Cohen. CC-BY Attribution 4.0 License.
To search for U.S. Government datasets on topics covered in this article, as well as doctoral dissertations, visit the Researcher's Toolkit for Free Access to sustainability data & resources!!