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?

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