Editor’s Note: Here is the first post from Darlene Seto, a student in a Master’s program at the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, and one of our two new bloggers in our continuing series, “The Life of a Sustainability Studies Student.”
It’s probably no surprise that one of the major reasons for my foray into environment studies was not just because I thought it would be interesting (which it is); or that it would offer future job opportunities (which is true); but because I believe the environment is important. Basically, I wanted to understand how to help make the world a better place.
Better understanding how our society can make the transition to a more sustainable world – on ecological, social, and economic scales – is one of the largest challenges we as humans face today. I study the environment because I want to be an agent of change in the transition. Most, if not all, other students enrolled in similar environment or sustainability-minded programs, I’m guessing, share a similar belief.
As students of the environment, our work is often recognizably relevant to society’s needs. A perusal of a few of the projects being pursued among my friends (green buildings, wind energy, and sustainable water management) provides prime examples of this. (Stay tuned for profiles of these exciting projects!)
This raises, however, a number of issues for students making their way through the upper levels of academia – namely, how can we satisfy our desire for activism and making change in the real world, with the demands for research? Not only that, but more specifically, how can we as students– through our own learning process and production of research – attempt to give back to greater society?
One of the ways that we, as students and researchers, can do this is through the “translation” of our research to a wider audience. That is, give the people who can use the knowledge we’ve created in ways or forms that they can use it. This might be writing a policy brief for a government official, a meeting or lecture with the community in which you worked, or even simply providing a copy of your thesis to the people who helped in its formation. If you’re working with a particular person or group, it can go even further so that they participate in the research process itself. The basic idea is actively involving and giving back to the individuals or groups who have participated in one’s research, and to broader society.
The challenge for graduate students in this field is having the resources – knowledge, financial, and time – for the effective communication of our ideas and work. We don’t necessarily know how to write a policy brief. Most grants or other funding proposals don’t include allotments for return trips to the field, and the cramped timeline for research work limits our ability to really incorporate in some of these opportunities. Luckily for me, my work on community gardens is based out of my current location in Vancouver, British Columbia, so I don’t have to worry about such large financial costs. But finding the time might be an issue, since I’ll likely be finishing my thesis at the end of the summer, just in the nick of time!
Producing research and change are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they do carry with them some tensions. Universities can be seen as ivory towers, distant from the needs of society, engaging in obscure theorizing. It is true that there can be disconnects between what is seen as “academically interesting” and what kind of information is needed by society. The translation of research, and particularly of science, into policy raises even more questions for the dilemma of the “activist-scholar.” Politics, it is contended, is not something a scientist should be involved in.
I might argue that our mandate should be the opposite, and that to engage in change is a necessity. In any case, as a student and activist myself, I cannot help but muse over how to bring such engagement to my work. I’ve offered one possibility here, but there are many more. So I may not have many answers to the questions I’ve posed, but being aware of such concerns at all is one of the most important steps in their navigation. Being reflexive in our work and continuing to try to engage with the world is something which I would encourage all environment students to do.
Darlene Seto is pursuing her master’s degree at the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. A keen student of environment policy and governance, her current graduate work revolves around diversity and engagement in alternative food systems.