Prof Iain Stewart: “It’s important that challenges to the ‘business as usual’ are not constrained behind a paywall”

By Prof Iain Stewart, Royal Scientific Society, Amman, Jordan/Colm Gorey, Frontiers science writer

Prof Iain Stewart speaking at a conference. Image: Prof Iain Stewart

Prof Iain Stewart of the Royal Scientific Society in Amman, Jordan has appeared on our television screens to educate us on the fantastic field of geoscience. Now, collaborating with Frontiers, he has highlighted what role universities have in building a more sustainable world.

The profound threat to the long-term wellbeing of society as a whole, both present and future generations, is arguably the most acute threat humanity has ever faced. But what is the culpability of universities in allowing this systemic unsustainability to emerge? And how can this existential threat be dealt with if academic institutions are not firmly in the vanguard?

This fundamental question is the focus of a research topic (RT) published by Frontiers launched earlier this year, overseen by topic editors including Prof Iain Stewart, titled ‘Re-Purposing Universities for Sustainable Human Progress’. Regular watchers of BBC science documentaries will be familiar with his work, particularly in the field of geoscience, that spanned 15 years.

In 2016, Stewart decided to step away from the small screen to become director of the University of Plymouth’s Sustainable Earth Institute to develop interdisciplinary science around sustainability-related topics.

Earlier this year, Stewart made the move to Jordan to become the El Hassan research chair in sustainability at the Royal Scientific Society, Amman where he is blending science communication with interdisciplinary research issues to promote more effective science and society engagement around pressing societal concerns.

Now, as part of our running Frontier Scientists series, Stewart gives us an insight into efforts to tackle the climate crisis and how universities have a part to play in it.

What inspired you to become a researcher? Do you have any specific memories that set off a spark?

No, there was no specific spark. I was interested in lots of things; too many, if I’m honest. My doctoral research was in ancient earthquakes in Greece and Turkey, which connected me with history and archaeology, and climate and environmental change.

That breadth suited television science, and later my research began to drift towards more interdisciplinary concerns emerging from the media work – tackling questions that needed to be worked on with colleagues in the social and behavioral sciences alongside the arts and humanities.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I’m now getting drawn into organizational change within academic institutions, and in particular how transformative change happens in the rather dusty conservative corridors of universities and research institutions. Working on climate change – most recently as communications lead for the Scottish Climate Assembly – has highlighted how academia – like every other sector – needs to change fast and at scale.

So, I’m interested in how principles and practices of science-society engagement can motivate interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary working, to create the spaces for more reflective, participatory engagement with the public around mutual matters of concern.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

I’d like to think that my recent highlighting of the importance of science communication within the geo and environmental sciences has helped geosciences at a time when it is struggling to connect with public audiences that see its intimate association with the fossil fuel and mining industries as more part of the problem rather than the solution.

Geoscientific understanding and expertise will be absolutely critical to tackling many of the most acute societal problems such as climate change, water security, energy transition and disaster risk reduction.

But as a global community we have largely failed to communicate our worth. My work promoting ‘sustainable geoscience’ or ‘social geology’ is, I think, important in encouraging geoscientists to re-evaluate their sense of collective common purpose at a vital time.

‘To address the current socio-ecological crises, transformative change is needed over years, not decades, and it’s important that challenges to the ‘business as usual’ are not constrained behind a paywall’

Prof Iain stewart

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Perhaps the most common misconception is the general prevailing notion that the answer to the many problems we face will come from academic specialisms, rather than from the blending of diverse disciplinary perspectives.

For all the lip service given to interdisciplinary working by universities and funding agencies, most research remains wedded to a siloed academic infrastructure. Creating new hybrid models of academic inquiry to more effectively harness skillsets and mindsets from across the sciences, humanities and arts will take more than just a cosmetic makeover of creating interdisciplinary research groups. We need to dig deep to transform the institutional research cultures.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Humanizing geoscience seems to me to be especially important and resonant. Geoscientists like me are weaned on the mantra that ‘the present is the key to the past’, but given contemporary concerns we need to adapt a research toolkit that has successfully looked back millions of years into deep time, and re-focus it forwards on more immediate human timescales.

If we don’t, it will be more than geoscience that will be redundant. Changing geoscience is just part of a wider re-thinking of how institutional science works.

How did you find being a topic editor for the RT discussing the re-purposing of universities for sustainable progress and what was a highlight for you?

The RT on ‘repurposing universities’ was an amazing opportunity to reach beyond the usual suspects of scholars studying sustainability and higher education and pull in a diverse set of thought leaders from academia and beyond.

It was a chance to look beyond my natural orbit of science communication and public engagement to draw ideas from a fresh constellation of influences, particularly from the business world and from burgeoning social movements. The highlight was the resulting collective sense of consensus – evidenced from multiple perspectives – that universities, as currently configured, were not ’fit for purpose’.

How has open science benefited the reach and impact of your research?

For me, the ‘proof of the pudding will be in the eating’, in that a collection of hard-hitting, provocative articles is available for immediate widespread dissemination. To address the current socio-ecological crises, transformative change is needed over years, not decades, and so it is important that challenges to the ‘business as usual’ are not constrained behind a paywall.

The urgency of the planetary situation means we need to start conversations now about how scientists can be more effective in communicating what they know and how it can help, and open science dialogues are critical to that mission.  

If you have recently published your research with Frontiers and believe you have a story to tell, then you might feature as part of our new Frontier Scientists series! Send an email with the subject line ‘Frontier Scientists’ and your name to , as well as details on what your most recent research was about.