Transforming research practices towards environmental sustainability

Kristine Oevel is a doctoral researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Molecular Pharmacology (FMP) in Berlin, where she works in a wet biochemical laboratory. She coordinates the joint Working Group (WG) Sustainability of the Leibniz PhD and PostDoc Networks. The WG has been working on a Position Paper on the Transformation of the Leibniz Association towards Environmental Sustainability, which is now available.

Read about the contents and motivation behind the paper in the following interview:

What was your main motivation for founding a Working Group for Sustainability?

My personal journey in sustainability began approximately four years ago. It was the little things in the lab that annoyed me, like the amounts of plastics that were used on a daily basis, or that instruments were never switched off in the evenings. Motivated by making a difference, my colleagues and I spearheaded a grassroots initiative that has now grown into an institute-wide movement. That sounds really great now, but the beginnings were coupled with a lot of frustration, snarky comments, and doubts. Coming from this experience of a struggling bottom-up initiative, I wanted to collect the information and knowledge that we gathered and share it with like-minded colleagues inside the Leibniz Association and beyond. This led to the founding of our Working Group on Sustainability inside the Leibniz PhD and PostDoc Networks. In this group, our major focus is to emphasize the importance of environmental sustainability in our research practices.

What inspired the idea of preparing a sustainability position paper?

The preparation of a position paper was the most straightforward solution for our overarching goals. First, we wanted to raise awareness for sustainability in research, as well as to collect our knowledge and make it accessible to everyone. From my personal experience, many people want the academic system to be more environmentally conscious, but most of the time, they do not know how to start an initiative, or how to convince or motivate their colleagues. We sincerely hope that our paper can ease this process by pointing out that many transformations do not need financial investments but rather a change in mindset (s. immediate measures in the paper). Second, apart from the change in mindset, there also needs to be a systemic change in the way we equip, perform, fund and teach research. While we commend employee-based grassroots initiatives at institutes, they definitely also need nurturing from the top. Therefore, with this paper, we want to motivate the Leibniz Association and its institutes to take the necessary steps towards climate neutrality and realize their responsibility towards society.

The Leibniz Association brings together institutes from a wide range of scientific fields including research museums. How can this broadness be taken into account in a position paper?

We are fortunate that in our WG, both doctoral and postdoctoral researchers from many Leibniz institutes with diverse research backgrounds come together. This is why it also became quite evident from the beginning that there is no single solution in the form of a sustainability strategy that will fit all Leibniz institutions. But, in our view, the diversity of the Association is actually an advantage: the Leibniz Association itself harbors many experts on many diverse sustainability topics (see Leibniz research networks) like mobility, energy transitions, etc. as well as an established network dedicated to sustainable development. Thus, the knowledge for sustainable transformation is actually already available in house, we just need to connect expertise with demand, follow our own science and act on it.

Even though diversity is a crucial factor within the Leibniz Association, are there important common aspects of institutes where we need to do something for sustainability?

Individual institutes will have specific requirements depending on their research focus: fieldworkers are frequent fliers, while lab researchers use many consumables and energy-intensive instruments. However, before identifying specific requirements, there are common steps all Leibniz institutes have to undertake: Every institute should calculate their environmental footprint and identify institute-specific largest contributions, because these sectors have the largest reduction potentials. Based on such an analysis, institutes have to formulate institute-specific strategies and reduction targets so that the Leibniz Association can become climate-neutral by 2035. Concurrently, concrete and meaningful actions based on constantly updated evidence must be implemented in a broad scheme. This includes the sectors of energy and building infrastructure, resource consumption, research and administrative processes, event management, mobility, and knowledge transfer, for which we propose specific immediate and long-term goals and actions for the Leibniz Association and its institutes. One common instrument to overview and monitor such sustainable transformation is to establish sustainability offices at each institute. Focusing personnel and financial means on such a position will streamline the implementation of measures and underline the importance of sustainability in research.

What are the roles of doctoral and postdoctoral researchers in the sustainability process? Do we have any influence at all?

Of course, sustainability is a topic that is not specific to postdoctoral and doctoral researchers. However, the influence of early researchers should not be underestimated. Again, coming back to the personal experience from our grassroots initiative at my institute: what was laughed at in the beginning has now blossomed into a vital part of our internal institute structure, something that is taken pride in, communicated about, and is financially supported. And this was all started by PhD candidates and PostDocs. So do not be intimidated! There is definitely strength in numbers, and early career researchers are the biggest community at research institutes. Furthermore, the people most affected by any sustainable systemic change in policies or funding distribution will be us researchers. Therefore, it is important that our voices are heard and that we express them loudly and clearly. We cannot forget that our generation and future ones will  have to live with the consequences of the decisions made today.

If you could change one thing in the German academic system today, what would that be?

If the current energy crisis has taught us one thing, it is that we can immediately implement drastic reductions in energy consumption for financial savings without sacrificing research quality and integrity. At the same time, most energy-saving actions also correlate with environmental benefits (lower emissions from energy generation, reduction in waste, etc.). Most importantly, if we can drastically change the way we perform research because of financial motivation, we should be able to perform similar drastic transformations for our planet’s future. Therefore, one thing that must be changed now is the willingness to change at all levels. The urgency of our environmental emergency and the climate crisis must be accepted, and immediate actions must be implemented. Long-term sustainability has to be put above short-term money; investing in a sustainable academic system now will in turn benefit both our planet and budgets in the future.

What do you hope this position paper will achieve concerning sustainability in research?

In our opinion, this position paper presents a blueprint on how to de-carbonize the academic system, describes its inter-dependencies, and offers room for debate with all members of our scientific community and beyond. We sincerely hope that it is an immediate call to action; it evokes a new way of thinking and behavior at Leibniz institutes that paves the way and inspires other actors to follow along.

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