Soapbox

September 29, 2013 11:50 pm

Academia should heed industry’s scientific plea

Creative problem solving demands critical thinking and science literacy

This year in Washington business school educators and administrators assembled at the National Academy of Sciences to meet leaders from the private and public sectors and discuss a somewhat unlikely topic: climate-change education for future business leaders.

The most striking topic of the meeting (especially to me, a science professor at a business university) came from the responses of executives at global giants such as BP, DuPont, JPMorgan and Bayer. When asked what the next generation of business leaders need, there was unanimity in their answers: business undergraduates and MBAs should be literate in science and energy. They should be able to think in terms of systems, beyond the narrow confines of individual business disciplines.

In effect, to address global problems of sustainability and climate change, industry is telling academia that it does not just need scientists; it needs business leaders who can grasp the science.

Systems-thinking and science literacy help business leaders understand and manage uncertainty. In this respect, business is ahead of the US public. Take, for example, the robust (more than 97 per cent) consensus in the scientific community about anthropogenic greenhouse gases driving recent climate change. On the other hand, over the past seven years of polling by Pew Research – the non-partisan think-tank – the public has vacillated between 34 and 47 per cent in its ability to identify human activity as the main cause of atmospheric warming.

Business knows where to take its cue. A recent survey – titled “Sustainability Nears a Tipping Point” – of more than 3,000 global executives by the MIT Sloan Management Review and The Boston Consulting Group found that more than 70 per cent of companies have “placed sustainability permanently on their management agendas” and a full two-thirds said sustainability was a competitive necessity. These two sets of data are not unrelated. Politics and public opinion are constantly changing, but science yields reproducible results, even in the face of uncertainty.

Beale cartoon

Giving future business leaders the type of education that employers are asking for – covering the “big ideas” and core concepts of science in the context of corporate and public decision-making – should be the goal of business programmes at the undergraduate and graduate level where MBA students can be prepared for the unique challenges of sustainability. The economic and environmental impact of moving and changing matter – extracting and consuming natural resources – for energy production and manufacturing do not fit nicely into artificial academic silos. As a whole, the business community knows this. It is up to us to make sure we are staying ahead of the curve in preparing our students.

Ironically, what these business leaders are calling for is actually more closely aligned with the new Next Generation Science Standards for primary and secondary education than they are with most college-level business curriculums. What the US-wide effort to create new education standards refers to as “crosscutting concepts” among all science disciplines – such as the flow of energy and cycles of matter – are exactly the type of science literacy that is needed for college business students. Academia cannot cede all responsibility for science literacy to primary and secondary education. Creative problem solving at every educational level demands critical thinking and science literacy.

This is not to say that universities are not making strides in integrating cross-disciplinary knowledge into foundational business courses. But we need to do it even more deliberately from the arts and sciences perspective. Students need to be provided with the core concepts of science so that they can apply them in the context of sustainability-related problems. Students need to get their hands dirty learning systems thinking in applications. As a science professor, I have seen that this approach also helps underscore the importance of core concepts in the sciences.

For university teaching faculty to transcend the idea of simply arming students with professional relevance, we must listen to what industry is telling us – send graduates into the workforce armed with science literacy. We must also ensure that business schools pick up the baton and instil in MBA students an understanding of the importance of science and ensure that core courses include the sciences.

Science literacy removes the need for remedial arguments about the “belief” in the existence of rigorously and scientifically tested phenomena. We cannot expect future business leaders to address the real and complex challenges of climate change while remaining ignorant – or even worse, agnostic – about the science.

David Szymanski is an assistant professor of geology at Bentley University, Waltham, MA.

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