Green Universities: Newcastle University

Editor’s note: While some universities have yet to address the science of sustainability, others have excellent initiatives aimed at promoting green research. Newcastle University’s Insitute for Sustainability is one such initiative, and their recent internal funding call is a prime example of a concrete way universities can foster interdisciplinary sustainability research for early-career researchers. The Institute for Sustainability’s Research Coordinator, Dr. Shona Smith, took us behind the scenes of the Institute’s ongoing efforts to support early-career researchers.

Newcastle University's Institute for Sustainability

Newcastle University (NU) is a research-intensive civic university which aims to use research to recognise and respond to the needs of local society and global issues. The university’s interaction with civil society is focused around three societal challenge themes: ageing, social renewal, and sustainability. The Institute for Sustainability was set up to facilitate interdisciplinary research to tackle three global research challenges: Integrated Infrastructure Systems, Production and Resources, and Consumption and Waste. These research challenges are underpinned by the concept of ‘Justice and Governance’ which cuts across all sectors and policy areas and is at the heart of society’s pursuit of sustainability.

The Institute for Sustainability core team is made up of 11 people with 5 of us working as Research Coordinators (RCs), a unique job which bridges traditional university research and research support roles. As RCs, we work together to increase funding, profile, and impact for sustainability researchers across all schools, faculties, and disciplines at NU. We also work with the Institute Director, Phil Taylor, and Associate Directors to shape and implement the objectives of the Institute. The RC team have PhDs in a range of sustainability-related research areas including electrical engineering, microbiology, and atmospheric chemistry. Since we have recently worked as postdoctoral researchers and are well aware of the highs and lows of academic research, we can empathise with the researchers we work with.

From PhD to PI

In February 2014, the Institute launched the first of its funding calls open to NU academics and researchers working in the sustainability remit. These funding calls aim to nurture and promote high quality, interdisciplinary research which contributes to the Institute’s three global research challenges. When our Director asked us to think about a focus for our next directed call we developed a call specifically for Early Career Researchers (ECRs). We knew from our own experiences that there were very few opportunities available to ECRs on fixed term contracts to apply for funding as Principal Investigator (PI), and we wanted to give NU researchers an opportunity to apply for funding to develop and lead a project, and work towards independent research careers.

We did a bit of scoping with research support colleagues and our Research Forum members and after some toing and froing we came up with the scope for our ‘Research Challenges call focused on Early Career Researchers’. In this call we offered to cover the salary of fixed term ECRs for up to 4 months and up to £3000 for consumables / travel. The idea of the call was to support ECRs to: gather proof-of-concept data required for a fellowship application, add value to the ECRs career development by allowing them to gain new skills, and build their research profile and track-record.

We launched the call at the end of September 2014. In October the RCs hosted a workshop to introduce the call, and to give people tips on the application procedure and an opportunity to ask us questions. We also invited Jennie Dodson, chair of NESSE, to help us facilitate a discussion about setting up a network for Early Career Sustainability Researchers at NU (more about this later).

Newcastle Early Career Researcher Focused Call

The call closed on 24th November 2014, and proved to be our most popular to date. It was a tough assessment process but in the end the panel consisting of Director, Associate Directors and the RC team, decided to award funding to four standout ECRs. You can read about their projects here. It doesn’t end there, though.

Early career researcher network

Our Research Challenges funding call was the launch of a long-term focused effort to support NU early-career sustainability researchers. With Jennie’s help we facilitated a discussion with the ECRs who came to our workshop in October, which inspired a group of ECRs from a variety of schools and disciplines to set up their own early career research network—the Newcastle Sustainability Early Career Researcher Network (NewSECRT). We’ve also got a call open at the moment for the Enviresearch Foundation Travel Award Scheme 2015, which offers to fund travel costs and laboratory consumables for Newcastle University ECRs and PhD students to visit research groups in Europe for a scientific project or fieldwork. Recently we ran a very well-received workshop to provide advice from experienced researchers about applying to the EPSRC and an opportunity to have one-to-one sessions to discuss research ideas.

There are other things going on, too, and we’re always listening to our researchers and developing new ideas to support them. One of the most effective ways we do this is by bringing together groups of researchers across social and technical discipline boundaries to react to some of the major challenges of our time (wicked and super-wicked problems) with people outside the university.

We believe that our first-hand knowledge and understanding of the process of research and the ways in which being a researcher can be exciting, exhilarating, all consuming, and at times transient and frightening has helped us to drive and shape the Institute for Sustainability ECR focussed initiatives.

Newcastle University Institute for Sustainability Research Coordinator Team 

(Shona Smith, Amy Brown, Lynsay Blake, Guy Hutchinson, Jen Hazelton)

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