Monthly Archives: April 2014

Ellie Perkins: Letter to President Shoukri

Dear President Shoukri,

I am writing to express my deep dismay and shock about the Vice President Research and Innovation’s decision to recommend that York’s Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS) not be re-chartered.  This recommendation contradicts York’s professed commitment to interdisciplinarity and sustainability in research, teaching, and administration, and it is a slap in the face to the dozens of faculty members and thousands of students who have developed and worked on IRIS research initiatives over the years.
The VPRI’s decision also goes against the recommendation of the three-member external review panel that the VPRI engaged to assess IRIS’s record and potential.  The panel, which spoke highly of IRIS’s work in many areas, recommended that IRIS be rechartered for two to three years in order to solidify and focus its interdisciplinary research program at York under a new director, and seek additional external funding. IRIS’s Executive, in responding to the external reviewers’ report, underscored its intention to engage in broad consultation across the university and establish a Research Committee in order to set priorities and pursue funding in specific areas.  However, winding up IRIS’s operations, and suspending the search for a new IRIS director at the final stage as the VPRI has done, leaves all this hanging and is a tremendously disrespectful, inefficient and cavalier way to treat the many York faculty and students who have served on the Director search committee and who have worked with IRIS.
I have served on IRIS’s Executive for years and formerly served on the Executive of IRIS’s precursor organization, the York Centre for Applied Sustainability. I have been the Principal Investigator of several IRIS-supported research projects, and I continue to carry out research based at IRIS.   I led the 7-member York University delegation to the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, after IRIS Director Dawn Bazely successfully pursued York’s application for United Nations observer status.  This has in turn assisted other students and faculty members to become involved with global climate change research.  IRIS’s research on participatory engagement in climate change governance, and climate justice networking with dozens of global partners — from academia, governments, and local communities — is something of which I am very proud.  Building on and drawing together the work of many colleagues in the sciences, arts, business, health and FES, we are now able to assemble global partnership grant applications addressing many aspects of climate change awareness and policy using methods that are at the forefront of participatory and collaborative research design.  This has come together through Dawn Bazely’s energetic leadership and deep commitment to interdisciplinarity, which is shared across the IRIS Executive, but I fear that the ill-will and deep disillusionment generated by the VPRI’s actions will destroy what many colleagues have worked so hard to build.
As you know, the current Senate process for rechartering ORUs is new, controversial, untested, and has been developed and explained in a fairly opaque way.  There are questions about the extent to which full information has been provided to decision-making committees.  There will almost certainly be heated debate in Senate when IRIS’s charter is discussed.
I urge you to exert your formal and informal leadership at York to advocate the renewal of IRIS’s charter for two to three years, as the external review panel recommended, so that we can get on with pressing and important sustainability research.
Patricia E. (Ellie) Perkins

Dawn’s 2008 Vision for IRIS

When I took on the IRIS directorship, part of the to-do list was to steer the sustainability research centre through a senate rechartering process.

I already well knew that sustainability research and teaching is a messy space that people argue about in terms of how to do it and teach it. I was asked to develop a personal vision, based on my first 2 years in the job.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m posting this vision here. I took a lot of advice from different people in crafting it, including, my doctorate supervisor, Lord John Krebs. I met with him in Oxford University, in 2006 to discuss my impending directorship of IRIS and my involvement in the arctic human security project that evolved into the International Polar Year research GAPS project, under the leadership of Prof. Gunhild Hoogensen. Our long gestating book, Environmental and Human Security in the Arctic, has just come out!

John gave me two main pieces of advice:

1. Make sure that you get adequate institutional support… well, hmmmm.

2. Use fewer words to make your sustainability case, or you will lose the STEM people. I’ve definitely improved on number 2.

“Dawn Bazely’s PERSONAL vision for IRIS May 2008

The confusion and debate about the role of academia in society never ends.  When I started doing field-work in 1980, my family could not understand why I did not take a nice summer job with Ontario Hydro.  Every spring, friends from outside of the ivory tower wish me well for my summer holiday, just as I am launching into a field season of 16-hour work days, and congratulate me for having landed a job with paid summers off!

The need to explain the research activities that run alongside the more widely known coursework component of universities is a constant.  So is the tension that I have faced inside the academy over my interest in “applied” as opposed to “pure” ecology research.  And then there are those three degrees, in Biogeography & Environmental Studies, Botany and Zoology.  I often encountered fellow graduate students who clearly felt that I somehow lacked depth in their specific field of biology. My training and academic experience have always been about merging the boundaries between teaching and research and seeking inter-disciplinarity for myself.  From this comes my vision.

“The prevailing model of academic scholarship is highly individualistic. Career success, as defined in the context of the standard Tenure and Promotion and peer-reviewed research frameworks, is driven by the goal to write THE first paper on a subject, or to produce THE seminal book. The drive to stake intellectual territory is practically a biological imperative among ALL academics who publish actively, that I know. This is unsurprising – the production of new knowledge and the notion of intellectual property are the de facto widgets of the academy. 

 However, with over 6 billion people on earth  (, like many other applied ecologists, I believe that we face some rather pressing issues that are finally affecting every single human on the planet – even the buffered few who control most of the resources.  The need to forge teams of researchers and research alliances that can address the multiple facets of complex problems is obvious.  But, this research approach is antithetical to the prevailing model for doing business in the academy. 

 I see IRIS as being a place and space where this second kind of research model can gain ground in the area of sustainability.  I see IRIS-based and supported projects as mapping out ways of both honouring the contribution of individual researchers, while allowing them to be part of collaborative, intellectually stimulating, research teams.  Ultimately, Tenure and Promotion files and peer-reviewing would respond to this shift, especially for junior faculty members.  To put it succinctly, it’s time for academics to stop knowing more and more about less and less, and to model more mutualistic (+/+) and less competitive (+/-) behaviour, because we all sink or swim together.” (I wrote the latter before I read an interview with R. K. Pachauri, Chair of IPCC, at the Gstaad Project).

This is not an original idea.  I have had many great discussions about the challenges at IRIS specifically, and sustainability and interdisciplinarity in general, with colleagues as diverse as Lord John Krebs and Roy Bhaskar, the philosopher and developer of Critical Realism.  Plus, tons of other universities are establishing centres such as IRIS, including Columbia University (Earth Institute).  Just google “sustainability research centre”. “

Justin Podur: Five reasons not to close IRIS

by Justin Podur, April 26/14

2014-02-04 14.46.54A few months ago, I was asked to take a survey by York University’s Institute for   Research and Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS). The last question asked for a brainstorm of ideas about research that I would like to do through IRIS if I could. I came up with an idea to study York’s campus as an ecosystem – what wildlife use the campus, for what purposes, how much biodiversity existed on the campus, and what could we do differently if we saw the campus as wildlife habitat? (Maybe I was unknowingly tuned into the Homegrown National Park idea currently underway by the Suzuki foundation). It was one of the many ideas that come up and don’t end up amounting to much. But then, typical of my interactions with IRIS, a friendly and persistent student working on organizing these into research projects kept following up with me until I agreed to supervise such a project if one or two students were willing and interested to take it on, and the plan was hatched to start the project later in the summer.

But then, a couple of days ago (the day after earth day), I heard that instead, York’s Vice-President of Research plans to not renew IRIS’s charter, closing it down instead. A few reasons arise as to why closing IRIS is a bad idea.

1. It is hard to claim we don’t need sustainability research. Indeed, the VP of Research isn’t trying to claim we don’t need sustainability. In a reply to IRIS director Dawn Bazely (who resigned upon hearing the news), the VPRI wrote that “sustainability research continues to be both a strength and area of opportunity for the University and the VPRI is committed to promoting the strategic development of this area of research across the University. We will shortly be announcing a task force to identify and examine options and develop innovative ideas for highlighting and further building York University’s research strengths in sustainability within the broad area of Public Engagement for a Just and Sustainable World”. The logic is difficult to follow. This affirmation of the values, principles, and work of IRIS, comes simultaneously with an announcement of its closure.

2. Value for money. As Andrew Tanentzap, who held a fellowship at York U before becoming a faculty member at Cambridge in the UK, noted in his letter to the VPRI, “Given that IRIS has been essentially operating on no University funding, I can’t see why you would not recharter it.  IRIS produces a modest number of research outputs, attracts considerable funding and media attention, and certainly promotes the the YU brand very heavily.” Tanentzap reports that Cambridge has created an interdisciplinary institute on sustainability and conservation modeled on IRIS. The idea is needed. It’s working. It’s being adopted by other institutions. How could the logical conclusion be to close it?

3. It is arbitrary. The external reviewers report, like every external review, includes praise, criticisms, and recommendations. Overall, the recommendation is for a re-chartering (read pg. 11 especially). The reviewers recommend a clear commitment, either from the VPRI or a consortium of faculties, to provide core funding for IRIS’s operations. If the external review had not recommended rechartering, it would be understandable for IRIS supporters to challenge that recommendation, to ensure that the reviewers had all the relevant information and context. But given that the reviewers recommended re-chartering, how could their report be used to justify closing IRIS?

4. It is demoralizing. The decision comes as a major exercise in academic prioritization is underway, which IRIS, as an organized research unit (ORU), would have been participating in. That exercise, the AAPR has been subjected to some very well-informed and insightful criticism. In the coming academic year, the university will be changing its budget model to what’s called Activity-Based Budgeting (in other places it’s been called Responsibility Center Management). These changes have left many in the university community feeling anxious and afraid about the future. No one knows what is going to happen with these changes – and the combination of multiple big changes promises some truly unpredictable outcomes – but a natural question that arises is, why not wait for the information that comes out of these major exercises before making a decision to close a unit?

The decision also comes after an extensive search process for a new director for IRIS, into which many people in the community invested – not least the candidates themselves. The reviewers recommended giving the new director a few years to see how things were going. Why close IRIS after all that?

5. Aren’t various levels of government doing enough to kick sustainability? Despite the affirmations of the continuing importance of sustainability to York accompanying the announcement, the message sent by closing the campus’s interdisciplinary research institute on sustainability is the same one being sent by the federal government and all too many other levels of government in North America: that the planet isn’t especially important. This message has done real damage to our society’s capacity to deal with climate change, extinctions, and other crises that need more study, attention, and action. Even if it’s accompanied by a statement that sustainability still matters at York, could anyone looking at this decision see this as anything other than more of the same?

Dawn Bazely’s 2005 Job Interview: “Vision for IRIS”

2014-04-13 19.45.34Digging through my files, I found my 2005 application for IRIS director. When I started the job in July 2006, I certainly didn’t imagine doing it for so long: for the initial term plus 3 renewed terms: 3 years + 2 years +1 year + 1 year, totalling 7 years over an 8-year period (Prof. Stepan Wood stepped in as acting director, when I went on sabbatical to Harvard and Oxford). Looking back, I’m surprised at how coherent the plan I came up with, actually was. It subsequently evolved, of course, though, at first glance, I’m pretty happy that I was on the right track back then: many of the ideas and goals have been implemented.

  • Make it sustainable, integrative, interactive, inclusive and “trans-disciplinary” while simultaneously maintaining a tight research focus in ongoing projects.
  • Make it applicable to the broader community (both academic and non-academic) 
  • Give it a strong science base, and recognize that while science alone will NOT provide the compelling arguments that are needed to make the sustainability issue a top priority for funding, that poor science will harm the chances of long-term success


1. Develop and nurture a research environment where cutting edge research aimed at understanding what it would take to bring about a paradigm-shift from an unsustainable to a sustainable approach to our lives, could truly take place. Currently the government of Canada is faced with a variety of threats to our security, from invasive species (including diseases like SARS) to climate change, yet on major issues such as these, the intellectual capacity present in our academic institutions is underutilized. Addressing this gap would be a direct goal in my IRIS.

2. Foster authentic trans-disciplinary research, (not to be confused with multi-disciplinary research), in which academics from Sciences, Social Sciences and Education, as well as areas such as Philosophy and Ethics, and also Business interact in a meaningful way. I see IRIS as a place where the tensions that pervade the standard research funding models of rewarding academics (certainly within Science) for doing more and more narrowly focused research in which the main criteria for evaluating success is primarily numbers of papers published, would be directly addressed, so that research teams would operate at multiple scales in space and time, and not lose the broader focus while at the same time maintaining the output of research papers or books that is used by some of our main federal funding agencies as the primary indicator of success.


Identify key themes for research (e.g. within international, national, business-oriented, public, and NGO areas of activity).

Develop a functional framework for inter-disciplinary collaborations (many groups and instituted claim to be doing this, but few are truly successful).

Develop a fundraising programme that moves beyond the normal sources of Academic funding (NSERC, SSHRC) to identify key private Foundations who can be approached (I realize that much of this groundwork may already have been done).