Science alone can’t save us, say scientists


Researchers find that understanding human behaviour is the key to using science to solve real-world problems. Rachael Vorwerk reports.


Scientists including Rebekah Brown (second from left) and Veena Sahajwalla (second from right) say greater integration of social and physical sciences is needed to solve the world’s problems.
Scientists including Rebekah Brown (second from left) and Veena Sahajwalla (second from right) say greater integration of social and physical sciences is needed to solve the world’s problems.
Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute / Claire Denby

Physical scientists need the social sciences if they’re going to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, according to two leading Australian researchers.

Speaking at the Australian launch of a new journal that aims to integrate social sciences in research, Veena Sahajwalla of the University of NSW in Sydney and Rebekah Brown from the Monash Sustainable Development Institute in Melbourne argued that economics, social sciences and physical sciences should be combined to achieve real, practical outcomes.

“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,” said Brown.

Brown is studying whether green infrastructure can provide clean water, flood protection and sanitisation in 24 slums across Indonesia and Fiji.

“The project works at the interface of green infrastructure and preventative medicine and spans medicine, science, engineering, art design & architecture, and business & economics,” she says.

“We’re trying to find out whether green infrastructure can have a material impact on people’s gastro-intestinal health.”

Veena Sahajwalla, the inventor of ‘green steel’, said she conducts all her research with the end user in mind. Her green steel technology uses waste tyres to replace some of the coal in steel-making, and offers an affordable and sustainable product to manufacturing companies.

“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,” said Sahajwalla.

Her research is now being used in Bangladesh to reduce coal consumption and lower the carbon footprint.

At the journal launch, held at the University of Melbourne on 17 July, Sahajwalla and Brown said they design their research with consideration of human behaviour in mind. The new journal, Nature Sustainability, will publish cross-disciplinary research like theirs.

“It’s great that we now have a vehicle that allows us to publish this kind of work,” says Sahajwalla.

Nature Sustainability also gives us the chance to publish in a journal that has a higher standard, which I think is very important.”

“The social sciences are part of the research design in Nature Sustainability,” says Monica Contestabile, the chief editor of the new journal, which began publication in January of this year. The journal joins dozens of others in various fields published under the aegis of Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals.

“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.”

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