Scholars want sabbaticals and placements to fight climate change

More than a thousand people sign open letter published online by Times Higher Education

October 29, 2019
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Some of the UK’s leading scientists are among the 1,000-plus signatories to an open letter calling on universities to take action “independently and swiftly” to tackle the climate crisis.

Jim Al-Khalili, president of the British Science Association, Shaun Fitzgerald, director of the Royal Institution, and science broadcaster Helen Czerski are among the signatories to the letter, published online by Times Higher Education.

They say that universities must “support scientists, academics and students to help address the climate emergency through a series of new programmes, fellowships, sabbaticals and voluntary placements to help the critical efforts needed to save all life on our planet”.

According to the letter, addressed to vice-chancellors, Universities UK and UK Research and Innovation, these should be hosted “by a large partnership between universities, companies and [non-governmental organisations] working on solutions”.

“We need to be leaders. We need to transform our universities into action-oriented institutions,” says the letter, also signed by Alice Roberts, professor of public engagement in science at the University of Birmingham, Rowan Williams, master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and Joy Carter, vice-chancellor of the University of Winchester.

The signatories to the letter, created by Alison Green and Richard Dent, co-founders of the Transition Lab organisation, span 78 universities and include 300 professors, 557 academics and 68 PhD students.

Mr Dent, who is studying for a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Cambridge, said that universities needed to move urgently towards being carbon neutral.

“We aren’t going to meet the target if we rely on the private sector and government policy only,” he said.

The programmes outlined in the letter would involve university staff taking time out to work on projects or placements that could directly help tackle climate change, from a scientist working in the field at a renewable energy company to someone taking a month to plant trees, Mr Dent said.

“We’re not saying everyone should stop researching but it’s time to rebalance a bit more towards action. Universities need to show leadership,” he said. “It all hinges on universities supporting this, instead of worrying that faculty aren’t working on papers and how that affects their reputation and rankings.”  

The letter comes ahead of the launch next month of the Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education, which aims to outline a strategic sector-wide approach to the climate emergency and plans for action. Organisations involved in that project include UUK, GuildeHE and the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education.

In July, 7,000 higher and further education institutions around the world declared a climate emergency and earlier this month UCL joined the list of institutions which have announced plans to divest from fossil fuels.

“It’s not that universities aren’t doing things already; it’s that they don’t understand the scale of work that needs to be done…we need to pick up the pace significantly,” Mr Dent said.

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