Leading role for universities in fight for sustainability

The role of universities is crucial if we are to hope to reach all of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Universities provide the best research-based knowledge and opportune platforms for much needed partnerships – all decisive factors for the global goals.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Last week in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda were the backdrop for the 2018 International Conference of the International Association of Universities (IAU).

Norway’s University of Bergen participated this year, first of all to underline our commitment to and engagement with the SDGs – contributing as a speaker in a session about sustainable development through multi-stakeholder collaboration – but we also attended because we were invited by IAU to be the organisation’s Hub institution for SDG14, Life Below Water.

On United Nations Day, 24 October, we were also awarded Hub status for SDG14 by United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI), which is an initiative that aligns institutions of higher education with the UN in supporting and contributing to the realisation of UN goals and mandates. Interestingly, we thereby both represent the global academic community top-down, via UNAI, and bottom-up, via IAU.

Integrating SDGs into research and teaching

In April 2017 Peter Thomson, the then president of the United Nations General Assembly, wrote a letter to all leaders of higher education institutions around the world. His message was clear: “It goes without saying that young people are the most capable of the transformation required, having the most to gain or lose, from the success or failure, of the Agenda. I therefore make this sincere request to you to make these goals an integral part of research, teaching and study at your institutions.”

Thomson called for knowledge, education, research and university leadership for a sustainable future.

The need for action is clear and at my institution, the University of Bergen, we have launched a strategic initiative to engage with the SDGs, called SDG Bergen. This includes our future education, research for scientific advice and building partnerships for the goals. The engagement spans our seven faculties and cuts across disciplines, yet there is a reason why we have been chosen to lead on SDG14.

This would not have been possible without our excellent marine researchers and their long-standing traditions. A sustainable relationship to the ocean brings opportunities within energy solutions, medicine and food – to mention a few. Early in 2018 we advanced on this by launching Ocean Sustainability Bergen, an initiative as part of SDG Bergen to further strengthen our research and coordinate our SDG-related marine and ocean activities.

Another example of continued SDG-relevance is the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research in Bergen. Last Monday the centre launched the Bjerknes Climate Prediction Unit. The unit's objective is to enhance climate prediction to the level where it benefits society. For example, the fishing industry will benefit from being able to plan years ahead and adjust their quotas in accordance with predicted climate changes. Thus research is made available and useful for different sectors and businesses.

Furthermore, the Bjerknes Centre will attend COP24 – the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – in December this year, and along with our Geophysical Institute they supply international bodies with science advice on the indicators connected to SDG14.

University engagement

University engagement is perhaps not so much about establishing a wide range of new courses and launching dedicated research programmes as it is about coordination and integration. A survey published in Global Policy journal in December 2017 shows that close to 90% of the academic staff agree or strongly agree that their own research and-or teaching is of relevance to the Goals. We have a great base for future involvement.

It is important to understand that the SDGs differ fundamentally from the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. These were successful in many ways, but the targets set for each goal were isolated from each other. The targets for the SDGs on the other hand, are designed with the other goals’ targets in mind.

The interlinkages between the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development are emphasised, as well as the linkage between the 17 goals themselves. Rather than working dedicatedly to reach each individual goal, now all goals must be reached at the same time. To do this we must see each other’s strengths and form partnerships.

Interdisciplinary approach needed

Highly complex questions and challenges cannot be dealt with in a purely disciplinary manner. For instance technologists, biologists, economists and philosophers all need to come together to discuss how to sustainably feed a growing global population. Behavioural sciences are needed when the perception of climate change among the public is to be understood, to inform policy-making and in deciding what actions to take.

Also, our research methodologies must be revisited. Reducing complexity has been a well-proven and efficient research strategy, in particular within the natural sciences and medicine, but it increasingly fails when highly complex issues are investigated or addressed.

What can researchers of natural sciences learn from other subjects’ methodologies? By studying causalities between, for example, society, individuals and natural phenomena, researchers of the humanities and social sciences are geared to take on a leading role in understanding the complexities of sustainable development.

Review initiated by students

Students are the future, so our advances in other research areas should benefit their education as well. At our university we are currently reviewing all our educational programmes to see how the 2030 Agenda can best be addressed and included. We design and redesign programmes, and this review was initiated by the students themselves. Their bottom-up approach and understanding of the SDGs is just as important as the top-down perspective.

Our department of biological sciences recently launched the first two SDG-dedicated courses at our university, focused on SDGs 14 and 15 respectively. However, the courses will be closely connected to one another and draw on each other’s teachings. The interdisciplinary approach is a basis here also.

Last February, the University of Bergen hosted a unique conference on the SDGs. The conference was the first of its kind worldwide and brought the university community together with ministers and politicians, government and UN officials, civil society and industry representatives. More than 300 people participated to discuss how universities can contribute at the science-policy interface required for the goals of the 2030 Agenda.

Science diplomacy role

Our engagement also includes science diplomacy and science advice with researchers participating at and contributing to high-level meetings of the UN on the SDGs.

Building on the position as Norway's premier SDG-oriented university, we have established leadership through a national committee for the 2030 Agenda. The committee consists of leaders from Norway's main research universities and advisers from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education and Research as well as the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD).

The involvement of students is a prerequisite for success on the SDGs. Our own students illustrated this clearly when they hosted the Bergen International Student Conference in April. The theme of the conference was “Climate and Society: Transformations in the 21st Century” – and it was a great success. They have also been involved with arranging our SDG Conference.

Even if my university has a special relation to SDG 14: Life Below Water, it is SDG 17: Partnership for the Goals that we highlighted at IAU’s International Conference last week. All our work with partnerships for the goals and our multi-stakeholder roles brings us together. We must work across borders, across disciplines and across the 17 goals.

Dag Rune Olsen is rector of the University of Bergen, Norway.

Photo credit: Eivind Senneset for the University of Bergen