May 18, 2020

Should the pandemic change what we ‘do’ as sustainability scientists?

Posted by Tom Gleeson

By: Viviana Re and Tom Gleeson

he world will likely never be the same again after the covid-19 pandemic – too much has changed for us personally, socially and culturally. The pandemic is a terrible tragedy that continues to devastate lives and economies while ironically also bearing the possibility of being a much needed global sustainability reset.

So as applied scientists focused on sustainability, what is our role in this reset? 

On a more personal level, many people question how we could, should or might respond to the pandemic. As academics, we found this Chronicle of Higher Education article very useful and comforting as it lucidly describes the initial stage of shock and setting up a stable family and team environment, which eventually evolves into embracing the new normal. We have started embracing the new normal, and this post started as a simple but hard question from one colleague to another: should the pandemic change what we ‘do’ as sustainability scientists? 

We offer this as just one perspective of two people from different places and acknowledge that each person has different challenges, capacities and possibilities. We encourage comments below or other sharing through social media.  Before the pandemic, we were both active academics busy with the hustle and joy of full-time research, teaching and service. We both care deeply about working on challenging water sustainability problems in the real world and communicating our work to broad audiences – hence the existential question as ‘sustainability scientists’. It is important to note that we are not directly involved in the applied science of finding a vaccine or cure, or any other direct responses to the pandemic. We imagine our perspective may be useful to other applied academics motivated to make the world better, but less useful for academics more on the ‘front line’. We each give a quick snapshot of our coronavirus life to situate our perspective in the box below.

Our perspective on what ‘do’ as sustainability scientists starts with the perspective of psychologist and Buddist teacher Tara Brach: the pandemic is a mirror of how we respond to change… and we can either react out of fear or act out of love and presence. After reflection, we suggest there are three basic responses to the pandemic as sustainability scientists:

1) Status quo: living in denial by avoiding research work, struggling with research work or working too hard. This approach may be linked to the fact that most of us still implicitly think that everything will be normal soon…so we will still be evaluated based on our productivity. Some academics may be fearful that being less productive (as they dedicate more time to themselves and family) will harm their career. We are even being implicitly pressured to discover something extraordinary during this time by this cheeky article “during a pandemic, Isaac Newton had to work from home, too. He used the time wisely“.

2) Go slow:  take care of yourself, colleagues, family and friends and maybe continue to work on the same things you worked on before the pandemic. An emerging Global Manifesto on Academic Praxis during and after Covid-19 argues that we use this disruptive time to foster a culture of care, refocus on what is most important, change expectations about the meaning of quality teaching and research, and in doing so make academic practice more respectful and sustainable. Maybe this is a good moment to re-think the way we produce scientific outputs. What if instead of publishing more and more, we could simply publish good and relevant things that people would actually read, and might enable change in our world? 

3) Innovate and Experiment: try something new, which could include:

  • New ideas and different research: Our research is in water sustainability, and the pandemic poses interesting questions like what does an altered global food system mean for water sustainability since growing food uses so much water?  To us, the pandemic is highlighting the importance of resilience and we may shift our research in the direction of resilient, sustainable water systems.  If you have a relatively comfortable existence, you could take the positive out of the Issac Newton example of “having time to muse and experiment in unstructured comfort”.
  • Connect and work in your community:  whether that is your nearby community (neighbourhood, university, city) or other communities around the world. There is unprecedented awareness of tools and ways to connect with people, so why not use these for good?
  • Imagine a better future: “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve which is a reminder of the power of imagination”(Tara Brach).  So let’s use our imagination to plant the seeds of a good Anthropocene. What are the positive seeds that we can or are planting now that could make a better future?
  • Develop compassion in sustainability science: too often we are called (either implicitly or explicitly) to put our career first, and to judge our colleagues mainly based on the hours spent in the office or the number of scientific papers published in a year. The Global Manifesto on Academic Praxis during and after Covid-19 argues for the importance of an ethic of care in academia. What if we develop a compassionate attitude and start embracing pluralism (thus being open-minded to different approaches towards life and work), and valuing care and solidarity among colleagues and students? Perhaps rethinking the way we live academia and research will lead to unexpected and positive outcomes, such as improving not only our personal life but also our working environment.
  • Engage more broadly and deeply: One of the lessons of the pandemic is the importance of science to more fully engage with a myriad of stakeholders and decision-makers. Imagine if the scientists simulating disease transmission kept the results on their computer or only shared them in their research group instead of broadly with health and government officials? Can we apply the same logic to the grand challenges of sustainability so that as sustainability scientists we more fully engage with a myriad of stakeholders and decision-makers?

These three basic responses of status quo, go slow, and innovate and experiment are not a linear sequence — any one of them could happen to us on a given day or moment since our experience of the pandemic is such a roller coaster. We have found that by identifying and bringing awareness to each of these responses, we can shift towards the second and third responses, which feels more creative, generative and, hopefully in the end, useful to the myriad of sustainability challenges we face. 

Sustainability scientists in a pandemic:

Viviana: The situation in Italy evolved so quickly, with a national lockdown starting on March 9th, so my initial response was: “be prepared”. This involved the creation of weekly menus (to minimize grocery shopping trips), a total disinfection of my flat, listing all the working assignments based on priorities, and committing myself to slowing down. As current guidelines suggest to go out only if strictly needed, I have only been out of my flat twice since March 9th (for practical reasons, my partner is in charge of grocery shopping). In this period of forced isolation with severe limitations on my freedom of movement, I discovered that I am stronger than I thought, and I found myself being able to kindly embrace and accept my anxieties and fears. I am grateful to the support of a strong social network (family, friends and fellow yoga practitioners) and virtual coffee breaks with colleagues.

Tom: My initial response has been to take care of myself and near ones, work on social solidarity in my various circles (friends, family, colleagues and research group) and when possible focus on a single paper that has been languishing – I have found focusing on this (even if it doesn’t have anything to do with covid-19!) a good reminder of what I am passionate about, and what I bring to the world. I have been self-isolating with my partner and 5-year old son since March 17 – my days are split between work and childcare, but we still are able to go for walks, garden, and see friends and neighbours on the street at a distance. 


Viviana Re
Department of Earth Sciences,
Universita di Pisa, Italy



 Tom Gleeson
Department of Civil Engineering and School of Earth and Ocean Sciences
University of Victoria, Canada