How sustainability research is changing institutions

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Since the early 2000s academic curricula have undergone significant changes, to reflect changing times.

For many years, teaching of the environment used to be structured under one subject in large departments at schools or universities. Topics such environmental science might have once only been part of a biology or geology programme, or even been included in the field of environmental policy. However, over the past 30 to 50 years, a number of interdisciplinary programmes have evolved, that are based on environmental science and policy. In addition, there has been a growth in degree programmes in the field of sustainability itself in the last 10 to 15 years.

'The fact that you can major or get a master’s degree in sustainability, has been really transformative in many ways, because now the students are much more committed to having meaningful career paths than previous generations I have taught,' says Robert Brinkmann, Professor of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment at Northern Illinois University.

Brinkmann’s background is in geology and during his field work he would try to locate sediment unaltered by human activity and take samples. But almost every area identified on the map, turned out to be altered in some way by human activity and he soon realised that the world we are seeing now is different from what we learned in textbooks.

Industry bodies, such as the Geological Society of Americas show that researchers in the field have become very aware of the human impact on the planet. 'At its last meeting more than 50 per cent of presentations focused around human alteration of the earth such as climate, sedimentary or other earth system changes, highlighting a profound shift in the field.' says Brinkmann. 

Changing the curriculum

Changes in scientific disciplines through the impact of human actions have also impacted the world of academia. Back in the 90s, the main focus for many students was to try and get the best job possible and make the most money they could. Today a lot more students recognise that the earth is in a crisis and that society has a number of challenges and they want to dedicate their lives to a greater purpose.

'There is now a selection of transformative types of degrees, that make students feel like they are not getting into a career but in fact advancing their personal avocation for a particular topic. They want their lives to have a have a deeper meaning and their college degree to match their personal ethics,' says Brinkmann.

The structures of our higher education system were established a very long time ago and even today’s departments go back for generations. It is not easy to adjust these old structures to changing times. 'But the reality is that science is moving faster than the university structures are moving,' says Brinkmann.

Climate change as well as other environmental impacts we are seeing today have encouraged experts from different fields, such as climatologist, geologists, biologists, geographers, sociologists, planners and others to work together on researching issues and finding possible solutions. However, it is often not easy to realise this type of collaboration within a single department, due to the current structures in place. Brinkmann therefore thinks that is important to focus on supporting universities, researchers and knowledge creators to move forward in a forthright way to ensure that this important type of environmental research can happen.

What can librarians do to support sustainable research and goals?

One way, academic libraries and librarians can support sustainability research are special collections. They often contain specific data such as a range of local information, whether it is photographs or records diaries. Another example are big data sources available on environmental conditions, such as temperatures, data around phonology or plants flowering periods. Data librarians play a huge role in managing and organising many types of specific data. When it comes to sustainability, information moves fast and researchers need to work alongside specialists as well librarians to understand how to access certain data.

Brinkmann believes that it is important to develop measurable outcomes and figure out how we can all take part in this great sustainability experiment, to find a way to turn the corner on some of the real problematic issues such as climate change or water pollution, desertification, or species decline and see how we can make a difference.

We invite you to explore Springer Nature’s resources to support the Library’s role in sustainability research and goals and to listen to Robert Brinkmann’s podcast series on Practical Sustainability here.