Virtually all of the toughest sustainability challenges we face require both a deep understanding of socio-ecological systems and the integration of that knowledge into appropriate social and political contexts. In addition, local environmental and sustainability issues - from agricultural sustainability and biodiversity protection to clean water and sustainable fisheries - are increasingly connected to international social process and planetary feedbacks. Ecology is thus increasingly embedded in complex trans-disciplinary international processes and structures focused on integrated sustainability goals. In this context, ecologists join others and become sustainability scientists.
This transition is a good thing for ecology and for the sustainability goals we are seeking to advance, but it comes with individual, cultural and institutional challenges. Many ecologists work within institutional structures designed to support diverse in-depth research trajectories within disciplines rather than integrated science research focused on challenges. In these settings, rewards that come from working in international, transdisciplinary teams are often not easily recognized. Further, traditional funding sources offer few incentives for international, transdisciplinary research, and the highest impact products that come from this work often fall outside of traditional academic products.
Here I explore international shifts in science collaboration, focusing on major structures bringing scientists together across disciplines and geographies and connecting science communities to action-oriented communities in civil society, the public sector, and the private sector. I focus on the following case studies: 1) The evolution of the global change research programs into Future Earth, an organization committed to supporting, organizing an increasing the impact of international integrated sustainability science. 2) the coalescence of international sustainability science funders into the Belmont Forum, the largest public sector funding mechanisms for international transdisciplinary sustainability research, and 3) the rise of integrated, policy and solution-oriented team science programs and projects supported by an increasingly coherent ecosystem of global institutes and organizations. I conclude with a series of recommendations for individual engagement with these structures at various points within a career trajectory, and suggestions for institutional reform within academic and non-academic institutions to increase the effectiveness of science within international science policy contexts.