Re-thinking best practise – environmental sustainability in research

15th March 2021

The research community can only tackle the huge challenges posed by climate change and biodiversity loss by working together to embed sustainability at the very heart of higher education research and innovation, says Alison Robinson, NERC Deputy Executive Chair.

Huge challenges ahead

There are huge challenges ahead for our sector, for our institutions and for us as individuals in our organisations and everyday lives. Like UKRI in our commitment to hit net zero emissions by 2040, enhancing biodiversity and re-thinking our use of resources, many of us are getting to grips with the scale of what needs to change to be successful. We need to rethink how we operate on a day-to-day basis and embed sustainability into everything we do. It’s why, for me, the most important thing that will help us deliver our strategy is collaboration. With our wealth of research and innovation expertise, if any sector can hit these ambitious targets, it is ours – but we can only do it if we work together.

Fundamental to that collaboration is engaging the higher education institutes and wider research organisations. I’m not just talking about campus buildings and facilities – although UKRI is investing a huge amount into sustainable infrastructure and we can learn a lot from you and each other – but how research and innovation is carried out. How can we embed sustainability into the decision-making of researchers and innovators? How can we make it an integral part of our culture?

UKRI grant-holders use some fantastic but energy-hungry equipment to undertake their essential research, such as the huge super-computers to model climate change and data stores for the longitudinal studies used in the social sciences. We need to find sustainable ways to power this essential kit and data. Our challenge is to listen to the science of our own work and apply it to our on-the-ground practice.

If you’re studying the deep ocean, for example, how do you think about environmental sustainability in that context? Are there ways to explore the ocean as we do the stars? Are there non-carbon ways of using ships – or other technologies we can use instead? How can we travel less in undertaking research? In other words, how can we meet our environmental obligations and still foster excellence and impact in research and innovation?

Opening up the discussion

UKRI doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, we want to open up the discussion so we can tackle this together. It’s part of the reason we decide to support the Green Gown Awards this year as headline sponsor. Sustainability should not be seen as an add-on to good practice, but an inherent part of research and innovations excellence – and across all disciplines. We must champion and celebrate all who are taking strides to reflect this.

It won’t be easy. Grappling with these solutions will inevitably involve trade-offs where, for example, the need for carbon reduction will be balanced with protecting biodiversity. The UK is at the forefront of climate science, so we must use our expertise to ensure we create a new best practise for research that puts sustainability at its core

Discussing and sharing best practice

While there are significant challenges at scale, it’s also important we start discussing and sharing best practice for day-to-day decision-making. UKRI wants to encourage that dialogue, we encourage you to take up the opportunities to learn from each other after the awards are announced. Our environmental sustainability goals may be ambitious, but I am sure that by working together as a research and innovation system, we will rise to the challenge.

To be part of the dialogue on embedding Environmental Sustainability into research practise and culture contact ukrisustainability@nerc.ukri.org  

UKRI is the headline sponsor of the UK and Ireland Green Gown Awards. View all of the year's Finalists here.

Alison Robinson, NERC Deputy Executive Chair