Research Champion for Environmental Sustainability and Resilience: Professor Sue Hartley

Our research champions outlined the challenges and opportunities facing researchers within each of their themes at a research showcase in October 2015 to mark the inauguration of the University’s new Chancellor, Professor Sir Malcolm Grant.

Professor Sue Hartley began her talk with a dramatic tour of the global environmental challenges facing ourselves and our planet...

In a sobering series of slides she charted the dramatic growth of urban slums, home to ever increasing numbers of people, but lacking even the basics of clean water and sanitation; she showed just how immediate the food security challenge has become as water supplies for agriculture grow increasingly scarce and erratic; and she reminded us just how urgent it is to make the transition to a carbon-free world.

This ‘perfect storm’ of environmental issues, she argued, is much too daunting a challenge for any one discipline to address. Tackling problems of this magnitude will require innovative thinking, unprecedented cooperation between countries, academic communities and other partners, and a willingness to cross the boundaries between disciplines, she said. YESI was established to foster exactly that sort of approach – an equal partnership of physical, natural and social scientists to generate the evidence base for sustainable solutions to these global environmental challenges.

Sue Hartley is Professor of Ecology in the Department of Biology and founding Director of the York Environmental Sustainability Institute (YESI), a leading centre for interdisciplinary environmental research. Her work focuses on the interactions between plants and other organisms.

Food security

Professor Hartley highlighted some success stories of this collaborative approach. York’s biologists are working with climate modellers and social scientists to develop rice strains that are better able to cope with extreme weather conditions, bringing new hope to millions in areas affected by flood or drought. York is leading the £16 million N8 AgriFood initiative – a collaborative venture involving over 300 researchers at eight northern universities. N8AgriFood is driving innovative approaches to addressing food security through three interconnected research themes: sustainable food production; resilient supply chains; and improved consumption and health. Six university farms will be used to test new ideas and ensure they are practical in the real world, or what fellow research champion Professor Thomas Krauss calls ‘fit for purpose.’

Professor Hartley showcased another collaborative research project which is giving us a deeper understanding of air pollution in our cities. The CAPACITIE project brings together environmental scientists, electronic engineers, chemists, computer scientists and sociologists to develop and apply cutting-edge technologies to monitor pollutants in the environment. The focus is on three test cities – York, Berlin and Seoul – and involves 16 international partners including industry and local government. Again, the aim is to develop solutions that are innovative, but also practical and fit for purpose.

But to be sustainable, the solutions developed have to be transferred to the people that need them, and the interdisciplinary skills essential for innovation have to be passed on to the next generation of researchers. With that in mind the CAPACITIE project is training 12 early career researchers who are able to develop and apply technological solutions, but also have a good understanding of the needs of end users and the social and ethical issues around the adoption and use of technology.

Bioeconomy

She also highlighted how the University is playing a critical role in building capacity for environmental sustainability and resilience in the region. BioVale is an innovation cluster that will establish the region as an international centre for the bioeconomy, developing the production of renewable biological resources and their conversion into food, feed and bioenergy and high value bio-based products. This initiative will not only bridge the gap between disciplines, it will connect our knowledge base to industry.

But York also has a global vision. All over the world people are on the move: some are migrating to cities in search of economic opportunity, but others have little choice. They are fleeing human-made drivers of migration – persecution, war, lack of access to land and other resources, but increasingly environmental ones too – droughts, floods and other extreme events which threaten crop and livestock production and destroy livelihoods.

The issue of our age

Forced displacement is the issue of our age. The head of the United Nations refugee agency, António Guterres, has said: “We are witnessing a quantum leap in forced displacement in the world". There are now almost 60 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people worldwide, figures not seen since the Second World War. And while the current media focus is on Europe, the burden on developing countries is far greater and increasing: they now host 86 per cent of the world’s refugees, compared to “only” 70 per cent ten years ago.

Nowhere is the problem more acute than in Africa – home to one quarter of the world’s refugees. In Kenya the UN Refugee Agency lists political insecurity and climate change, particularly drought, as the main drivers of displacement, but moving to escape these threats to places like Dadaab in northern Kenya, the world’s largest refugee camp, or Kibera slum in Nairobi, the largest urban slum in Africa, is only part of the story. Once there, new threats emerge – health hazards, such as a lack of sanitation, an absence of services like electricity or education, and social problems, such as tensions with the receiving communities.

Complexity

Professor Hartley explained why at York we have the capacity to address this complexity better than most. We bring together teams of researchers to understand and mitigate the drivers of forced displacement and its consequences. Our environmental scientists and climate modellers are experts in identifying the environmental ‘push’ factors for displacement and can map when and where they will intensify in future. Our public health scientists can develop community-based interventions to address the key health risks in recently displaced families in urban slums. And our social scientists can test ways to strengthen the resilience of both displaced and receiving communities and investigate how strategies for survival change as displaced communities become more established.

We can build these teams effectively at York because we have mechanisms to facilitate innovative collaborations that reach across departments and disciplines. One of these mechanisms is interdisciplinary research centres like the York Environmental Sustainability Institute (YESI), the Centre for Urban Studies, the Institute for Effective Education, and the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit. And of course, another way to foster these powerful and transformative synergies is our research themes – they provide the focus to build the networks of transdisciplinary research excellence that are necessary to tackle the urgent problems of our age.

If we were in any doubt as to the number of urgent problems we face, Professor Hartley referred to a chart drawn up by the World Economic Forum. This august body meets every year in Switzerland to identify the most pressing challenges facing humanity in the year ahead. In 2015 they highlighted a suite of issues causing concern: rapid urbanization, ageing populations, the rise of chronic diseases, growing income inequality, climate change, extreme weather events, food crises, water crises and loss of biodiversity.

Joined up thinking

These are well-known current challenges, but Professor Hartley emphasized another complication as we seek to address them: they are all interconnected, producing a potential cascade of negative effects. The risks are joined up, so we need to have joined up thinking to deal with them. As Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General realised back in 2010, to tackle these challenges effectively, we have to join the dots between the climate, poverty, energy, food and water.

Here at York we are responding to that call. Through our research themes we are building world-leading interdisciplinary research teams to address the global challenges we face, and to build a more sustainable and resilient future for us all.