Physical sciences (alone) can’t save us: we need to understand human behaviour, too.

Science is important in solving the world’s biggest problems.

But can the social sciences solve our planet’s biggest issues on their own?

Last month’s Woolworths’ and Coles’ plastic bag ban is a perfect example: environmental scientists have known for decades that plastic is harmful to the environment but changing habits at the individual level has not been simple.

Nature Sustainability’s Australian launch with (L-R) Tanya Ha, Rebekah Brown, Kath Rowley, Veena Sahajwalla and Robyn Schofield. Image credit: Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute/Claire Denby

Relying on the physical sciences alone to fix the world’s problems is futile. So the leaders of Springer Nature have decided it’s time for a journal that is broad based and cross-disciplinary. Nature Sustainability publishes research about sustainability from the natural and social sciences, as well as engineering and policy, and was launched in Australia on July 17 by Monica Contestabile, the Chief Editor of the new journal.

Academics are traditionally siloed into research areas and often forget to think about how the research will be embedded into society. Yet understanding human behaviour and how the public may respond to research can be the difference between failure and success in policy.

There is a need for academia and policy, along with the social sciences, to work together, so science can be developed with society in mind. And when these three things work together, real change can happen.

Sydney inventor, Scientia Professor Veena Sahajwalla is a perfect example of what happens when academia and the social sciences work together. Her research has been successfully integrated into companies all over the world, all because she develops her research with the end-user in mind.

Veena is the inventor of ‘green steel’, a type of technology that turns waste tyres into steel. The technology has now been commercialised globally.

“Manufacturing uses a lot of energy, so if you can find a solution that reduces the carbon footprint, and does it in a way that’s affordable, then it makes green manufacturing feasible and affordable in any part of the world,” says Veena.

The problem is that sustainable manufacturing processes will only be successful if they’re affordable—which isn’t often the case.

But that’s changing.

Veena understood that affordability is the main driver in manufacturing processes and developed a way to take a material—which would have otherwise gone to landfill—and turn it into something extremely valuable: steel. She’s doing that using a process that’s affordable and sustainable.

Her ‘green steel’ has transformed manufacturing industries overseas, recently including Bangladesh, to reduce coal consumption and lower the carbon footprint. She is also setting up ‘micro-factories’ which are small factories that are relatively easy to set up, that can then transform waste into valuable resources.

“We are enabling solutions that are fair and equitable for everyone on this planet. That’s what we’re doing with the micro-factories,” says Veena.

Professor Rebekah Brown, Director of Monash Sustainable Development Institute at Monash University, also argues that research should bring economics and social sciences to physical sciences to have a real and practical action.

She is testing whether green infrastructure can be an alternative to providing clean water, flood protection and sanitisation in 24 slums across Indonesia and Fiji.

“We need to shift the way we think, act and organise, which is only possible by bringing together expertise from across the physical sciences, social sciences, humanities and the arts—which are historically significant divides in universities,” says Rebekah.

The project works at the interface of green infrastructure and preventative medicine and spans five Monash faculties: medicine, science, engineering, art design & architecture, and business & economics. It aims to find out whether green infrastructure can have a material impact on people’s gastro-intestinal health.

Veena’s and Rebekah’s research are both excellent examples of research that combines many areas of science. Traditionally this kind of approach has also missed out on publication in high impact journals, as scientific journals are often siloed into specific subject areas.

“It’s great that we now have a vehicle that allows us to publish this kind of work. Nature Sustainability also gives us the chance to publish in a journal that has a higher standard, which I think is very important,” says Veena.

“The social sciences are part of the research design in Nature Sustainability,” says Monica.

“As a publisher we didn’t want to lag behind. Nature has always been interested in the interface between basic science and science that can more directly impact society.”

Integrating the social sciences into academia and policy is necessary if we are going to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems. Understanding human behaviour will help to better integrate research into society and policy, which should always be the ultimate goal.