Three ERC humanities grants in three years for KTH

Sverker Sörlin, professor of environmental history at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, has been awarded the prestigious Horizon 2020 European Research Council Advanced Grant of €2.5 million (US$3 million) for the project “The Rise of Environmental Governance: A history of the contemporary human Earth relationship”.

This is the third time a researcher of the KTH division of history of science, technology and environment has been awarded the highly competitive European Research Council (ERC) grant over the past three years. It also means that KTH has received three ERC grants in the humanities and social sciences, which is extraordinary for a technological university.

“This is extremely uncommon. In particular within the humanities, I do not think this is happening elsewhere, at least not in Scandinavia, that one institution is supported so extensively by the ERC programme,” Sörlin said. “I think one now can say that we are in the forefront of humanistic environmental research in the world.”

For each award KTH is matching the funding with SEK4.6 million (US$548,000).

“Our research teams are attacking the great societal challenges and this is at a time when deep, engaged humanistic research is more warranted than ever,” Sörlin said.

Sörlin has advocated cross scientific and humanistic research for two decades, exemplified by his keynote speech on “The Future of Humanity: And the future of the humanities”, delivered to a 2016 conference hosted by the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities.

Starting from January 2017, Peder Roberts at the School of Architecture and Built Environment has been directing an ERC starting grant for a project on politics, environment and science in the polar areas during the Cold War entitled “Greening the Poles: Science, the environment, and the creation of the modern Arctic and Antarctic”.

The five-year project, involving one post-doc, two researchers and one doctoral student is looking at environmentally vulnerable areas in the Arctic and Antarctic and how they are affected by political processes, such as globalisation and decolonisation, and geopolitical changes. The project is using sources from Greenland to Chile and from South Africa to Japan.

Later in 2017 Per Högselius was awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant for the project “NUCLEARWATERS: Putting water at the centre of nuclear energy history”. The project develops a ground-breaking approach to studying the history of nuclear energy and will receive almost SEK20 million (US$2.4 million) over five years and involve at least six researchers.

Rather than interpreting nuclear energy history as a history of nuclear physics and radiochemistry, it analyses it as a history of water. The project develops the argument that nuclear energy is in essence a hydraulic form of technology, and that as such it builds on centuries and even millennia of earlier hydraulic engineering efforts worldwide – and, culturally speaking, on earlier ‘hydraulic civilizations’, from ancient Egypt to the modern Netherlands.

What is special about the project is that research will not be about the actual nuclear reactors, but instead concern the water systems of nuclear power plants and their extreme dependency on colossal and, above all, constant, water flows. This has been completely neglected in previous historical research, according to Högselius, yet most nuclear accidents and incidents worldwide are related to failures of water supply arrangements.

“Seen from a water perspective, nuclear power is by no means a unique technology historically. The hypothesis is that, on the contrary, nuclear power is based on millennia of technological progress in water use – including everything from methods to handle drought in ancient Mesopotamia to wet rice fields in East Asia and the Netherlands’ multi-centenary struggle against the sea. The project will thus radically reinterpret how nuclear power ‘fits into’ world history,” he said.

Beyond state-of-the-art

To date, the ERC has funded some 8,000 top researchers at various stages of their careers and more than 50,000 postdocs, PhD students and other staff working in their research teams. The ERC strives to attract top researchers from anywhere in the world to come to Europe. Key global research funding bodies, in the United States, China, Japan, Brazil and other countries, have concluded special agreements to provide their researchers with opportunities to temporarily join ERC grantees’ teams.

The 2018 ERC funding, worth a total of €653 million (US$808 million), announced earlier this month, will benefit 269 senior researchers across Europe, “giving them a chance to realise their most creative ideas and potentially produce results that will have a major impact on science, society and the economy”.

The grants are part of the EU's research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020. It is a measure of the competition for funding that the success rate for the grants was 12% – and a reflection of the gender imbalance that a mere 17% of the awarded grants were given to women.

Among the successful bids is Sorlin’s project, which includes three multi-year PhD projects and a two-year post-doc position. It also involves the participation as researchers and supervisors of Glenda Sluga, professor of international history at the University of Sydney in Australia; Vanessa Ogle, associate professor in the department of history at the University of California, Berkeley in the United States; and Dr Paul Warde, reader in environmental history at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

Sörlin is principal investigator of the project in collaboration with Dr Sabine Höhler, head of the division of history of science, technology and environment at KTH, including the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory.

Sörlin, a prolific writer and cross-scientifically oriented scholar, has taken on an ambitious task: To sort out, through four ‘trajectories’, a global history approach to understanding the correspondence on “humanity’s relation to planetary conditions and constraints and how it has become understood as a governance issue”.

Sörlin’s key argument is that global environmental governance is inseparable from the rise of a planetary Earth systems science and a knowledge-informed understanding of global change.

“There is a need to understand the relationship between science and global environmental governance,” Sörlin claims, “notably how scientific ideas and concepts influence policy change and how Earth history and societal, human history interact in shaping global environmental governance.”

In 2002 Nobel Laureate Professor Paul Crutzen, a founding member of the ERC, published the seminal paper suggesting – based on the exponential rise in human pressure on Earth since the early 1950s – that humanity may now have entered a completely new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which the human world constitutes the largest driver of change on Earth.

“I take a lot of inspiration from the ongoing human species/Anthropocene debates, but I will move the question radically further: to the history of the governance of the Anthropocene world which we have now entered,” Sörlin said.

“As the existing research on global environmental governance history suggests, the instruments that human societies have so far been able to establish to manage the runaway environment are sorely lacking. As has been argued, even the UN system, which holds the most comprehensive set of environmental institutions, is nowhere near the capacity and efficiency that are sufficient for an appropriate human-Earth ‘governance’.”

Investigating the impact of business interests

He said business and industrial interests were often present when environmental legislation or norms were discussed and adopted. From Stockholm in 1972 to Rio in 1992, corporate actors sought to gain a seat at the negotiating table where the environment, environmental regulation and natural resources were discussed.

The project will attempt to identify such moments and strategies over several decades and assess the impact of business interests on environmental protection and legislation on the international level as well as in specific national contexts.

“One aspect of the interplay of business, governance and environmentalism is the active role played by leading industrialists and other capitalists in NGOs and global environmental governance,” Sörlin said.

In 2016 Professor Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and professor of environmental science at Stockholm University, was awarded €2.5 million for the ERC project, “Earth Resilience in the Anthropocene: Integrating non-linear biophysical and social determinants of Earth-system stability for global sustainability through a novel community modelling platform”.

With the three KTH ERC awards and the build-up of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm is positioning itself as a research centre of cross-scientific environmental sciences for the 50-year anniversary of the 1972 Stockholm United Nations Conference on the Human Environment.