Sustainable Engineering Science for Resolving Wicked Problems

Thomas Seager, Evan Selinger, Arnim Wiek

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

78 Scopus citations


Because wicked problems are beyond the scope of normal, industrial-age engineering science, sustainability problems will require reform of current engineering science and technology practices. We assert that, while pluralism concerning use of the term sustainability is likely to persist, universities should continue to cultivate research and education programs specifically devoted to sustainable engineering science, an enterprise that is formally demarcated from business-as-usual and systems optimization approaches. Advancing sustainable engineering science requires a shift in orientation away from reductionism and intellectual specialization towards integrative approaches to science, education, and technology that: (1) draw upon an ethical awareness that extends beyond the usual bounds of professional ethics or responsible conduct of research to include macroethics, (2) adopt anticipatory and adaptive approaches to unintended consequences resulting from technological innovation that result in more resilient systems, and (3) cultivate interactional expertise to facilitate cross-disciplinary exchange. Unfortunately, existing education and research training programs are ill-equipped to prepare scientists and engineers to operate effectively in a wicked problems milieu. Therefore, it is essential to create new programs of graduate education that will train scientists and engineers to become sustainable engineering science experts equipped to recognize and grapple with the macro-ethical, adaptive, and cross-disciplinary challenges embedded in their technical research and development programs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)467-484
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2012


  • Interactional expertise
  • Macro ethics
  • Resilience
  • Sustainability
  • Sustainability ethics
  • Wicked problems

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • History
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • General Environmental Science


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