A growing number of research projects are falling under the broad topic of sustainability. How can a university facilitate stronger connections between these different projects across departments and fields throughout the university, and empower researchers already involved and interested in these topics?
A number of PhD students at the University of Nottingham created the Sustainability Research Network, a dynamic network of early career researchers from across disciplines, working on, or with an interest in sustainability, to create these connections. I spoke with Gabriela Gutierrez at the university, who provided more information about this innovative project.
What is the Sustainability Research Network?
The Sustainability Research Network (SRN) is a dynamic network of early career researchers at the University of Nottingham working on, or interested in sustainability. Today, the network comprises over 300 postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers, lecturers and other early career research staff from a broad range of disciplines across all faculties.
SRN exists to provide fora for interdisciplinary discussion and collaboration around sustainability across all disciplines, including but not limited to: Archaeology, Architecture and the Built Environment, Biology, Biomolecular Sciences, Bioscience, Business, Chemical Engineering and Mechanics, Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics, Education, Electrical Engineering, Environmental Engineering/Technology, English, Geography, Horizon Digital Economy Research, Institute for Science and Society, Institute of Mental Health, Maths, Politics and Sociology. SRN aims to support early career researchers in their personal and professional development providing opportunities for networking, learning and enhancement of skills and employability; and to stimulate academic excellence in the field of sustainability through capacity building and knowledge exchange.
How did it come about?
SRN was established in late 2012 and launched in May 2013 by five PhD students looking to create more opportunities for early career researchers working on sustainability in different disciplines to meet each other. Prior to the launch of SRN there were few informal or formal opportunities for researchers interested in sustainability to meet one another and share ideas and expertise across disciplines. SRN is currently supported and driven by a committee of eight postgraduate and early career researchers and PhD students.
The Committee organises regular events, maintains communications channels and provides opportunities for networking and collaboration across all disciplines, schools and campuses.
What has the Network done so far?
To date, the Committee has organised various events involving many researchers within our network across disciplines. The launch event in May 2013 was attended by over forty researchers across more than twenty schools/departments. Subsequent events have included external speaker lecture sessions, early career researcher-led events in association with the graduate school, external visits, and informal networking events. SRN also provides communications channels for members to share news and opportunities, to seek information, to make connections and to discuss topics of interest.
All of these events provide opportunities for researchers to learn about other fields related to sustainability and to make connections with their own work, either by presenting their work (or an aspect of it), or through a lively and engaging discussion—developing ideas and forming relationships across the disciplines represented. Some events have specifically asked participants to reflect on the challenges and benefits of interdisciplinary research in sustainability around various topics and have resulted in lively and engaging discussions. These presentations have developed ideas and formed relationships across the disciplines represented.
We have enabled members to contribute to the University of Nottingham’s broader sustainability strategy and, in particular, to online learning initiatives. SRN members have facilitated the innovative Nottingham Open Online Course (NOOC) on sustainability, which introduces different disciplinary perspectives on sustainability to undergraduate and postgraduate students across the university. SRN members also facilitated ‘Sustainability, Society and You’, a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) open to those outside of University of Nottingham, as well as the International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility’s NOOC in Sustainable and Responsible Business.
What have been some of the challenges? Successes?
Members are students or postdocs at the university for on average three years. Due to the nature and timeline of the programme, we are confronted with a number of questions: Given the turnover, how can we encourage ownership of the network by members as well as the committee? Given the diversity of research on sustainability, and even the diversity of meanings of sustainability itself, what sorts of collaboration can we realistically attempt to foster within the limited time frame of potential SRN activities? How do we create a flexible structure that will enable interested individuals to collaborate on one-off events? How do we develop greater and more independent collaboration between SRN members, to take forward the network and contribute to organising future events? How do we develop links/affiliations with similar groups at other universities, as well as with our international campuses? These are some of the challenging questions that we have been trying to address.
We have had many successes so far and a lot of support from senior stakeholders at the university. There are already more than 300 researchers in the network from at least 22 departments, and more than £2900 has been awarded to date to support the 13 events we have held since May 2012. Additionally we have been developing links with our other campuses in Malaysia and China. The network has been developing its communication channels as well, with email, Twitter (@SResearchNet), Facebook and a blog.
What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?
The significance of thinking strategically: From early on we contacted senior members of academic staff as well as other contacts across the university to let them know what we were trying to do, and to request their support. This has been helpful for overcoming bureaucratic hurdles, for raising the credibility of SRN, as well as creating opportunities to publicise the network and organise joint events.
The importance of listening to our members: The SRN has set up ways of getting members’ feedback and in response to that feedback we have organised different kinds of events across the university and with outside partners. Our events are structured to enable participants to meet lots of different people, with time available for discussion, and new perspectives and approaches introduced by external speakers.
Formal versus informal structure: We decided not to become an official university society. This would have secured us administrative support and funding opportunities, but SRN would then have had to adhere to an inflexible constitutional structure and would not have had the full independence that SRN currently enjoys. However, some level of formality is still required, for example having a named committee to ensure that responsibility is taken for driving the network, and we are currently considering the strategic advantage of having an advisory board of more senior staff members.
Set some time aside: Connecting both offline (face to face discussions) and online (email, google drive) is important—finding a good balance depends on the availability and working styles of the team. It is important to appreciate the variety of work falling under the umbrella of sustainability, and take the opportunity to learn about projects other people are working on.
Develop skills: There is a broad range of useful skills, experiences and knowledge that each committee member, and also network member, brings to the network, and it is important to realise their personal and professional development motivations for involvement. It has not just been about what we already knew how to do, but what we were willing to learn and what could be beneficial to us in the future.
Not to underestimate the time commitment required to set up an initiative like this: There are a huge number of tasks to keep up with. We do not have tightly defined roles for committee members, rather we are flexible and individuals are able to take a back seat for short periods when data collection, thesis writing or job interviews need to be put first, during which time the rest of the team takes the lead.
For more information on the Sustainability Research Network at the University of Nottingham visit http://sresearchnet.wordpress.com