Leadership for Sustainability: Stanford Earth Dean on What It’ll Take

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

During Pamela Matson’s 15 years as dean of the Stanford School of Earth Sciences, the scope of the School changed so much that they had to change its name; two years ago the School became known as the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, or Stanford Earth for short.
pamela matson Pamela Matson
As Stanford Earth placed more emphasis on the planet’s growing sustainability challenges — including the push for a sustainable energy future, sustainable agricultural and water systems, and the response to climate change — it also expanded its faculty to include soil scientists, agricultural and land use researchers, ecologists, resource economists, geographers and oceanographers.
The fact is, Matson says, that achieving the goals of sustainability and the wellbeing of all people will require the engagement of all disciplines, and will also require that scientists and decision makers work together.
“The challenges of sustainability and environmental protection and resource management are very challenging, complex and ever-changing,” says Matson, who will deliver the keynote address at the 2017 F&ES Research Conference on Friday, April 21.
“To find success, one has to be open-minded, collaborative, and able to learn from experience — to learn from what doesn’t work as well as from what does.”
In an interview, Matson discussed the urgent need for leadership in meeting these challenges and the characteristics and strategies it will take to succeed.

At Yale this week you’ll be talking about leadership for sustainability. What leadership characteristics are needed to transition to a more sustainable world?

PAMELA MATSON: For one thing, we need systems thinkers. Creating a new technology, for example, may be a good contribution, but you have to understand how that technology fits into the system along with other assets, including social, natural and human capital.
I think that understanding human behavior and decision-making and having the skills to lead change in that context is important, too. What can psychology, behavioral economics, and sociology tell us about how people think and how they make decisions? Then, knowing that, how can we create strategies and partnerships and collaborations that lead to change for the wellbeing of people across generations?
A third characteristic of sustainability leaders is the ability to design innovations that actually can work at scales where they matter. We can develop something that works in a particular place, but how can we scale it? How can we ensure that the things we’re working on have the capacity to help broadly, beyond specific circumstances?

Your work, as a scientist and as dean, requires working with a wide range of people across many disciplines. What strategies have helped you work across disciplines?

MATSON: Open-mindedness and respect are the most important things. We all need to realize that people with different experiences and expertise bring very important things to the table. So, a sense of respect and value for different kinds of knowledge and ways of learning is critical. We need to be willing to listen and learn new things and to see the world through others’ eyes. These attributes are essential for interdisciplinary work in a university setting, but also in working with the decision-makers.

Many researchers find the process of translating their work into positive policy outcomes quite challenging. Do you have advice on how to bridge that divide between scientists and policymakers?

MATSON:Many of us focus on the need to improve our communications strategies so that our scientific lingo is more understandable to people and useful to the world. And, yes, I think that’s important. But if we really want our knowledge to be seen as useful by decision-makers, I think we have to be in a conversation with them. We have to understand the world from their perspective and then make sure the research we’re doing is helpful to them. This requires a different kind of dialogue that goes beyond scientists simply doing research and then handing it off to decision-makers with the expectation that they’ll use it. It has to be more of a partnership, an ongoing conversation. If successful, it can promote relationships of trust that we can build on when times get tough — and when what we have to say is not what they want to hear.

How much more difficult is that going to be for scientists given the political climate in Washington today?

MATSON: My sense is that scientific knowledge isn’t being recognized as useful or trustworthy. I don’t think that this is just the fault of universities or scientists, although certainly there is more we can do. I think it’s a larger societal issue that we have to solve.

In such a climate, how do you advance “sustainability” when so many don’t consider it a priority — or perhaps don’t even know what it means?

MATSON:First of all, I think it’s important to articulate what we mean by “sustainability.” For me, the goal of sustainability is intergenerational wellbeing — the wellbeing of people today and in the future, here and around the world.  When you frame it that way — from a very anthropocentric, human-focused perspective — it’s pretty clear that it will be important to individuals and their communities.  I think many people are motivated by concerns about the wellbeing of their children and grandchildren.  And of course, for those of us who also care about the millions of other species with whom we share the planet, the sustainability concept also works:  for our well-being as well as for theirs, we need to preserve natural capital — our resources, environment, climate systems, and species and ecosystems that provide so many of the things that we need and that future generations will need.

You’ve announced that you’ll be stepping down as the dean at the end of the year to focus, in part, on teaching more, but also to do more research. Are there certain questions you want to tackle now that you’ll have more time for that?

MATSON:I am very, very interested in how to make the knowledge created at great universities like Yale and Stanford more accessible and more useful and more immediately used by decision-making groups. I want to better understand the links between academic knowledge and decision-making in the real world — and how universities can help make those linkages more effective.
Pamela Matson will deliver the keynote speech during the 33rd annual F&ES Research Conference at 4 p.m. on Friday, April 21.
– Kevin Dennehy    kevin.dennehy@yale.edu    203 436-4842