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Creating a sustainable university: ‘You need breathing space for activist work’

More papers, more grants, more students: constant growth is still the gold standard at universities. Neuroscientists Anne Urai and Claire Kelly argue that this mentality obstructs us in resolving such complex societal problems as the climate crisis. Their alternative? The university as a doughnut.

Anne Urai: 'Throughout history, universities have played an important role in social movements'

Five years ago, Anne Urai (Cognitive Psychology) read the book ‘Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think like a 21st-Century Economist’ written by British economist Kate Raworth. In her book, Raworth advocates an economic model in which basic human needs are met and the limitations of the planet are respected. The economy is visualised as a round ‘doughnut’ rather than as a continuous upward line. That represents a major contrast with the economy model in use today, where constant growth is at the expense of people, animals and the planet.

Urai picked the book up again when she heard Raworth talk about the model in a webinar. ‘I thought: isn’t that how we should be thinking at the university as a whole? There are already a lot of excellent initiatives, such as Academia in Motion, open science movements, team science and citizen science projects. I wanted to connect these with the role of scientists in bigger societal themes, such as the climate crisis. If we apply the doughnut model in the  academic world, we can identify the links beween the different developments more clearly.’  She made a rough sketch of this and wrote a paper together with Irish colleague Clare Kelly: Rethinking academia in a time of climate crisis. The article was nominated this year for the Frontiers Planet Prize, an award for ‘breakthroughs in sustainable science’.  

In the paper you say that the university community has to take greater responsibility in the climate crisis. Why is that?

‘Firstly because there is a lot of knowledge held here. It has been recognised for a long time that the “hard” climate scientists, the people who construct models of temperature rise, could speak knowledgeably about the climate crisis. As social scientists, we didn’t have a lot to do with it. Now it’s steadily becoming clearer how big the social factor is in the solutions we are going to have to implement together.  Of course, we also teach at the university and we have an important role in inspiring future generations. In that context, I’m also working on a  programme about climate psychology that will start in the next academic year. Lastly, scientists are still a respected group and they have a lot of influence. Throughout history, universities have played an important role in social movements  and developments in society. Sustainability is one such theme: we can’t ignore it any more.’ 

Urai's and Kelly's proposal for the academic donut within which the university can flourish. Click on image for large version. Source: Urai & Kelly (2023)
Urai's and Kelly's proposal for the academic donut within which the university can flourish. Click on image for large version. Source: Urai & Kelly (2023)

People at the University don’t engage with such themes as the climate, because they are overworked and too busy being part of the rat race, you also write in the paper. Is that something you see around you here?

‘Yes, everyone is busy. I also know that the University is taking positive steps to reduce the pressure of work. For example, the idea of reducing the lecture time by five minutes, so as to free up room for other things. You need breathing space to be able to engage in activist work in addition to your everyday work; you see that with bottom-up initiatives like the open science community. So, it’s important that time is freed up officially. It’s also very important to do this kind of work together with other people: team science is one of the best ways to keep on finding the energy. I always say to people: if there’s one thing you want to do, join an existing group of people and see how you can contribute.’ 

Want to take action now for a sustainable future?

In the paper Rethinking academia in a time of climate crisis, Urai and Kelly suggest a few concrete steps to get started.

  • Discuss this article and related issues (such as private life and work balance, activism and open science) with your colleagues or your lab, over lunch, in a journal club or a book club (see tips for further reading).
  • Use an academic doughnut lens in your existing roles as mentor, assessor of grants or papers, manager and staff member.  
  • Add a few slides about the climate and biodiversity crisis at the end of your presentations or lectures – simply expressing your concerns often opens up new discussions.
  • Finding like-minded colleagues is one of the best ways to take sustainable action. Become a member of a sustainability community at your university (for example, the Leiden Sustainability Network).
  • Join a local, national or academic climate action group (for example Scientists4Future, Scientist Rebellion, Faculty for a Future).

In your paper you also express some criticism of the current academic system for being too focused on growth. Attracting more students, bringing in more grants. Like Raworth, you think that at the university we have to be ‘agnostic about growth’. Can you explain that?

‘Economists generally use GDP to define growth. Increasing GDP means increasing prosperity. Now there is a large degrowth movement that stresses that by no means all forms of economic growth actually mean more wellbeing.  We’ve seen that in the academic environment. A long-held belief within the University was: the more grants, students and publications we attract, the better. That system primarily brings with it the drive for competition and performance pressure, but it doesn’t do anything to raise the quality of the work. There are even times when it encourages fraud and malpractice.’

So what is a good alternative?

‘We mention ideas from the slow science movement that focus not so much on more, but on better science. You can also look at this very locally, for example in job applications: do you give priority to people who have rushed through a lot of papers in a short time, or someone who may take a bit longer to do their work, but delivers research that is well structured and fully verified? This is something I find it refreshing to think about. Again, it’s about culture in the workplace and in a department: not just celebrating that someone has published a lot of papers, but also when they have replicated the research one more time to make sure the findings are really correct. Instead of focusing on growth, we could focus on having confidence in one another, and each other’s work.’


Anne Urai regularly gives workshops about the ideas and practice behind the ‘doughnut university’. For more information, see her website CoCoSys lab.

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