Interpretation of results
Within the confines of this study, the sustainability aspects of which participants judged themselves the most to have no idea of were greenhouse gases, recyclability, longevity, and workforce. For these respondents, these sustainability aspects are not yet fully understood in relation to the materials they are designing. Furthermore, the aspects scoring high most often were accessibility, abundance, and toxicity. The aspects scoring low most often were training and workforce. It is prudent to verify how these aspects might actually score and relate education goals and verification of knowledge based on these results. Training and workforce currently score high when education levels are low and many new jobs are created, though this may arguably be viewed differently (see methods). However, if a reversed scoring system had been applied, this would not have changed which aspects score the highest overall.
It is noted that the questions reflect more the knowledge of how the material development process might impact detailed sustainability aspects, rather than merely the awareness of which sustainability aspects exist and might be influenced. Awareness itself can be evaluated as responding with values that are not ‘no idea’. The subsequent scoring provides additional insight into which knowledge of the impacts the material scientists judge themselves to have.
It is important to keep in mind that these scores are based on the participants’ own judgment as experts in the fields respective to the material they are developing. These scores however do not necessarily reflect reality. For instance, are the base materials really as easily accessible as many respondents have judged? The quantities required for experimental designs might be readily available, but for mass production, the volatility of global supply chains and how this might directly and indirectly affect production of their material can lead to strongly reduced access. Actual scores would be more suitably evaluated by a life cycle analysis study. If these scores accurately reflect reality, there is much to be improved in relation to job creation and training.
Regarding the logic behind the questions, the ideal situations envisioned can have several influences reducing their desired status. For example, efficiency of a material is also technology dependent. There can exist tradeoffs between more efficient materials and more efficient technologies and processes, which have not been examined in these ten questions. Comparably, a higher accessibility might lead to overconsumption if there are no simultaneous measures to stimulate production in line with the needs of future generations. Furthermore, it can be argued that a production process requiring few workers is preferable, as it is easier to set up. However, the development of a new material is envisioned, that in an ideal case would replace existing technologies and thereby affect current livelihoods. Therefore, providing more people with a steady income is seen as the preferable sustainable situation for overall society. For this same reason a minimum of education is seen as preferable over long years of training, as this would increase the number of years someone can have a productive income. It is acknowledged that a longer education could lead to a higher income and simultaneously create more educational jobs, but this was not taken into account in the questionnaire.
As for the highest temperature during manufacturing, this may provide an initial indication of how much energy is required to produce the materials. Depending on the energy source, this can contribute more or less to climate change. What is still missing is an indication of how long these highest temperature processes last, and if there are many different high temperature processes or merely a single manufacturing step requiring this temperature. Moreover, an indication of how much of the manufacturing process could be supplied by locally generated renewable energy, and how various manufacturing emissions could be captured and neutralized, would be ideal. The fact that the majority of the respondents of the first event where this question was posed could easily give their estimation implies a strong awareness among participants of the technical side of manufacturing their materials.
These results mainly imply that material scientists are not yet considering and applying all relevant aspects of sustainability when designing new materials, which in turn could have grave consequences if their material proves successful and is mass produced in the future. Improving this situation begins in education, however, teaching sustainability aspects has its own hurdles. While the SDGs are ideally taught as early as in elementary school, many schools face issues integrating the topics in the already overcrowded curriculum. In the Netherlands for instance, “only a few elementary schools teach sustainability. The requirements of elementary school teachers on sustainability as set by the UN in 2011 are not applied in practice, as there is more emphasis on math, language, geography, nature, and history” . We need to recognize these challenges and allow for more budget and resources to transform current education at all levels and ensure future students of all fields are well informed.
That being said, merely teaching these concepts remains insufficient. We also require policy changes to enforce course evaluations, and encourage lifelong learning to guarantee both practitioners’ active working knowledge and update this where required. The latter requires action from the professional field by recalling students to offer continuous education, and normalizing membership of a professional organization which has the capabilities to enforce the principles of continuous learning and putting sustainability aspects into practice as an industry and scientific standard.
Furthermore, mass financial investments are being made into energy systems designed to last for the coming two to three generations. Without awareness of sustainability aspects, we cannot realistically hope to gain lasting progress as opposed to continuing with current practices which will cost more in the long term. It has been suggested by McCollum et al.  that funds should be massively reallocated in order to reach the Paris climate agreement targets. To effectively encourage reaching these goals, the consequences of such reallocation should implemented in the process of scientific funding as well. I therefore recommend two global improvements to transform our current generation of scientists, as well as foster our future generations, into being more deeply aware of the consequences of their research:
Increase sustainability education, including environmental ethics, in all disciplines, countries, and tiers of education; for students, researchers, and policymakers.
Make addressing sustainability considerations a compulsory component of research grants and funding (see also ).
Practically, one example of how this can take form concerns the International Science Council, formed in 2018 through merging two large existing scientific councils. As a leading authority on admirable scientific practices, a possible revision of their newly combined guidelines for ethical conduct could include the following:
Advocate the professional and academic standards as the industry norm through governmental support, and encourage membership to this and other similarly regulated societies.
Advocate the need to update one’s knowledge regularly to all graduates, past and future, and stimulate initiatives by graduates and educational facilities to this end.
Advocate the need to include sustainability concerns into grants and funding applications to policymakers, industry leaders, and other donor organizations, as a mandatory element.
Advise members to shun grants and funding that does not require a review of how sustainable life cycles might be affected or studied.
As addressed by Bobrowsky et al. , such a code of conduct would have to be enforceable. If not the code would not be sustainable in itself. In line with these concepts, educators would review existing students and alumni about their knowledge, offering lifelong learning opportunities. Employers and professional societies would review employees’ track record of such courses, and may implement their own systems to for instance rank people according to their implementation of sustainability aspects. Governments, policymakers, and funding organizations would require a minimum scoring threshold and award higher scoring employers with more funding, and provide subsidies for increasing education when necessary. Society and governments both would demand materials that are made with more sustainability aspects simultaneously in mind, demanding exploratory life cycle studies and linked funding.
The one caveat of this setup is that making sustainable materials by itself is insufficient in order to reach sustainable production goals. To truly reach transformative sustainable solutions, we should question human behavior before asking how a new material could be optimally sustainably designed. The logic of the entire life cycle should be questioned, including whether or not the product should be brought into existence in the first place. Policy changes are required to transform people’s lifestyles [1, 35, 47]. Some go as far as to argue for sustainable population policies Ragnarsdóttir et al. . Costanza et al.  have framed these issues in a novel way by comparing societies’ unsustainable consumerism to that of individual addictions. In this view, societal addictions such as lifestyles with overconsumption relying on fossil fuels, overusing pesticides, economic aggrandizing, and overfishing, similar to an individual’s cigarette or drug addictions, both have short term rewards yet continue to be used despite universal knowledge of their detrimental effects. To overcome problems with lifestyle transformations, Mulder et al.  state that technical innovation could be easier to implement than changing lifestyles on a global scale, while there remain many uncertainties regarding whether or not the changes technology may bring lead to increased sustainability. They recommend that institutions and lifestyles change simultaneously with technology, and material scientists be given concrete targets. They also point out how increased efficiency might lead to increased consumption and resource depletion, and believe that discussions on how products are used should be solved by public debate. This can be contrasted by Woodruff , who points out the disadvantages of prevalent ways of thinking, and the opportunities we have. Inhabitants of industrialized countries commonly believe that natural resources are free and can be consumed endlessly, that either nature will adapt to humanity’s actions or technology can solve everything, and that a single person’s daily activities have a negligible effect on the environment. At the same time, humans have a large amount of knowledge and skills, and can work together to reinvent how energy is produced and used, and how to address our needs for water, food, transportation etc. It is clear that, even if we do transform our existing education and professional ethics to align with the SDGs in practice, the effects of capitalist consumerism on the sustainable survival of our and many other species needs to be carefully examined by all human beings in order to fully reach the SDGs.
In this study, 36 material scientists were interviewed, or asked to fill out a questionnaire, regarding their own awareness of different sustainable design aspects related to the material they were developing. These results form an initial indication of material scientists’ awareness and provide a basis to warrant whether a greater in depth study is required to ensure holistic awareness of all relevant sustainability concerns. The results of this study can be of use to:
Policymakers; for assisting in the development of educational, industrial, and commercial policies, standards, and assessments.
Educators; for the development of curricula and to test if the material of those curricula is sufficiently implemented in real life settings.
Companies and research organizations; for compliance with international and local laws, codes, and policies on sustainability, for insight in the organizations’ preparedness to successfully innovate and contribute to the circular economy and a sustainable global society.
Scientists and practitioners themselves; for reviewing their awareness and knowledge of key sustainability aspects, how these apply to the products they are developing and working with, and how they can make choices that increase the sustainability of their products’ life cycles.
The results of this study may be applied by any of the four above listed actors in order to increase the awareness of the aspects of materials’ sustainable life cycles among material scientists and other practitioners, or to directly encourage the development of materials with sustainable life cycles.
By performing a preliminary evaluation of the awareness of sustainability among material scientists, this study contributes to SDG 4: Quality Education [By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development] and SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production [By 2030, ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature] .
Still, Wolfram Alpha listed 8880 people employed as material scientist in the USA alone in 2009, and therefore this study has covered a small group of respondents compared to what the global number of practicing material scientists could be. This means that the results of this study need to be verified in a larger population of material scientists, and also outside of Japan. Furthermore, in order to assess the sense of responsibility in material scientist to their role in creating a sustainable society, a more detailed follow up study would need to ascertain the participants’ study background and knowledge of sustainability aspects to a deeper level. More detailed background should include participant’s nationality, place of study and degree, age and career stage, to determine any discernable patterns between awareness on the one hand, and training and culture on the other. In addition, participants’ direct response as to the question of how they perceive their role in creating a sustainable society should be included. One important limitation to the currently questions chosen is that they cover neither education nor the ability of the scientists to act on their awareness, whether or not it is obtained from education or their own initiative. From a sustainability point of view, as well as from the various ethical guidelines for professional conduct, ideally a scientist would be themselves motivated to uphold these guidelines in practice. In reality limited resources, time, data, other tradeoffs and pressures may lead to less ideal circumstances and result in less ideal choices. Future questionnaires should additionally explore the organizational and funding support experienced by individual scientists. This would lead to a stronger understanding of the values material scientist apply in their work, and thereby which parts of educational theories become part of practice and which parts can be improved, either by previous omission or apparent redundancy. For instance, if scientists know the materials they are using is mined under inhumane circumstances, why did they not choose to purchase them from a different source? Which sustainability criteria, if any, do they apply during their decision making process? To what degree is data available on the environmental and socio-economic circumstances concerning their materials and processes, and to which level of detail should scientists try to obtain this? To what degree are scientists encouraged and supported by their organization, governments, and clients to act responsibly regarding sustainability aspects?