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  (http://www.worldometers.info/), 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”. “

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