Improving Sustainability Assessment - resolving the trade-offs problem associated with decision m...

University of East Anglia
September 13 2017
Position Type
Full Time
Organization Type

Sustainability Assessment (SA) involves the development of sustainability criteria to apply to an emerging project or plan. Such an assessment framework can contain a large number of criteria; this simplification of the socio-economic environment into indicators is called reductionism.

Cannon et al. (2009) refer to decision complexity being increased through the introduction of too much information (called overload) or too little (leading to uncertainty). For SA frameworks with multiple criteria, overload leads to decision difficulties for decision makers (Sohl and Clagget 2013), and the inevitable introduction of trade-offs prevents the delivery of sustainable outcomes (according to Gibson, 2013).

Thus the practice of SA actually leads to unsustainable trade-offs. This research aims to resolve this paradox through the exploration of trade-off psychology in the context of SA methods. Retief et al., (2013) suggested three questions are key: when are trade-off decisions difficult? How do we react when faced with difficult trade-off decisions? How can we deal with difficult trade-off decisions? This research aims to answer these three key questions in the context of SA. The specific objectives are:

  1. To map the trade-off decision points in SA

  2. To categorise the difficulty of trade-off decision-making in SA.

  3. To evaluate how configurations of sustainability criteria influence trade-off choices

  4. To recommend how to address the trade-off dilemma.

The research will help to develop a number of skills including:

  • Research design

  • Expert elicitation

  • Stakeholder engagement

  • Literature review and documentary analysis

  • Interview techniques

The research will be embedded in the 3S (Science, Society and Sustainability) research group ( within the School of Environmental Sciences.

Opportunities are also available for UK students, and others who are eligible for Research Council studentships, to apply for ESRC funding to work on similar topics in this area. Please see more information and contact Alan Bond ( if you are eligible.

Funding notes

This PhD project is offered on a self-funding basis. It is open to applicants with funding or those applying to funding sources.  Details of tuition fees can be found at

A bench fee is also payable on top of the tuition fee to cover specialist equipment or laboratory costs required for the research.  The amount charged annually will vary considerably depending on the nature of the project and applicants should contact the primary supervisor for further information about the fee associated with the project.

This job comes from a partnership with Science Magazine and Euraxess

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