Arctic collaboration towards sustainability discussed with McGill University

On the 3rd of November, Professor Chris Manfredi from the Canadian McGill University visited HELSUS, the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science, to discuss collaboration between the two universities in Arctic research. The meeting produced fruitful discussion on how sustainability is embodied in Arctic research.

On the 3rd of November 2023, Professor Chris Manfredi, the Provost and Vice-Principal of the Canadian McGill University visited HELSUS, the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science, to discuss collaboration between the two universities in Arctic research. The meeting was attended by University of Helsinki Vice Rector Hanna Snellman, HELSUS professors and coordination team members. The meeting produced fruitful discussion on how sustainability is embodied in Arctic research and education of the two universities and emphasized the importance of interdisciplinarity.

The Arctic region experiences rapid environmental, economic and sociocultural changes that challenge its sustainable development. For better understanding of the underlying factors, drivers, consequences and impacts of the multidimensional changes in the Arctic and for generating research-based knowledge on how to solve these sustainability challenges, collaboration between different academic communities is needed. Professor Chris Manfredi from McGill University in Canada visited HELSUS to discuss sustainability science and the Arctic research, as well as to seek opportunities for collaboration in these themes between the two universities. 

Sustainability is one of the most important strategic priorities at McGill University, and a wide range of sustainability projects at different scales are being developed and implemented. Similarly, and in addition to major structural and cross-cutting sustainability actions, the University of Helsinki is working on smaller sustainability initiatives on different campuses, such as the meadow projects on the Viikki Campus. The University of Helsinki has also invested in and developed sustainability education courses for both students and staff, as has McGill University. 

The meeting sparked a discussion on sustainable internationalisation: How to strengthen international academic networks in countries like Finland, which are geographically difficult to reach? Both universities believe it is important to enhance international connections, while also considering how to reduce the climate impact of travel, for example. The discussion also touched on the possibility of making more effective use of the University of Helsinki's eight research stations in international cooperation.   

Arctic research at the University of Helsinki and McGill University 

Both the University of Helsinki and McGill University are working towards sustainability in the Arctic, albeit the Arctic regions surrounding these two universities differ greatly in their characteristics. In the University of Helsinki, the Arctic Programme 2022—2030 plays a key role aiming at raising the profile and visibility of its Arctic research, promoting the interaction between Arctic disciplines and strengthening strategic collaborations. The Arctic is also one of the five research themes in HELSUS, and HELSUS researchers have been contributing for the evolution of the Arctic Programme. Currently, the Arctic research by HELSUS members covers a wide range of disciplines and topics e.g. from the biodiversity of the Arctic lakes to a just green transition and its effects on the rights of the marginalized such as the Sámi. At McGill University the Arctic research has been a very strong subject as well. One of the key elements of the university’s Arctic research is the McGill Arctic Research Station, located north in Nunavut, which provides high quality Arctic research data. 

In the meeting Hanna Snellman, the Vice Principal of the University of Helsinki, raised concerns about the agenda of the current Finnish government, and how the concept ‘Arctic’ is not included in it once. The university is now working to get the Arctic back on the government's agenda and to continue working towards Arctic sustainability. 

The importance of sustainability and interdisciplinarity in Arctic research 

Multidisciplinary collaboration is needed in the Arctic research yet achieving it can often be challenging. In McGill University, multidisciplinary sustainability research is pursued by bringing researchers physically under one roof, removing them from their daily labs and offices. To this end, the university has invested in large interdisciplinary initiatives, for example, established the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI) to mobilize researchers around sustainability challenges and to interact and co-design projects that address complex issues from different perspectives. They also established the McGill School of the Environment, which brings together 18 different faculties to strengthen interdisciplinary research and teaching. In addition to this, the university is running a project to transform a nearby hospital site into a multidisciplinary complex, connecting students and researchers to work together based on specific problems and not solely the disciplines they specialize in. The university’s main aim is to turn the old hospital site into a learning hub dedicated to sustainability systems and public policy. At the University of Helsinki, on the other hand, interdisciplinary skills on sustainability and arctic knowledge are strengthened, for example, in the interdisciplinary master’s programme in Environmental Change and Global Sustainability, which offers courses on a wide range of Arctic topics. The Doctoral Programme in Interdisciplinary Environmental Sciences of the University of Helsinki enhances research with seeks solutions for a more sustainable future in collaboration with five different faculties. 

Towards future collaboration with McGill University 

In addition to the student mobility agreement established five years ago and possible use of research stations, the University of Helsinki and McGill University are eager to strengthen cooperation, now especially on Arctic topics. The meeting with the professor Manfredi proved to be a valuable opportunity to exchange ideas on sustainability, interdisciplinarity and the Arctic. As a result of the meeting, it was decided that discussion on formalizing the Arctic research collaboration between the two universities will continue in December with an objective to develop a Memorandum of Understanding.