Humanities and sciences: making common cause

In September, the first cohort of Master’s students in environmental sciences and humanities will be starting at the University of East Anglia.  According to Mike Hulme, Professor of climate change at UEA, the programme aims to ‘fulfil a need to move the environmental debate beyond science’, based on the recognition that ‘science alone cannot motivate social change’.

In emphasising interdisciplinarity and orienting itself around a central theme, such an innovation in programme design is a natural development from research strategies that have come to be configured around ‘grand challenges’.  UCL have four such challenge areas: global health, sustainable cities, intercultural interaction and human wellbeing.  Coventry identify 6 ‘challenges to change the world’: integrated transport and logistics, digital media, ageing community, low impact buildings, sustainable agriculture and food, and low carbon vehicles.  A quick Google search will reveal many other examples in the UK higher education sector and beyond.

It’s an intellectually exciting way of thinking about research and innovation.  It speaks well to audiences outside academe, including policymakers and politicians, and aligns with funding strategies that look for collaboration, cross-over and impact.

Responding to the grand challenges means bringing different discipline areas together.   Science, technology, engineering, design, psychology often have readily identifiable roles, but how far has the potential of the humanities been considered?  The recognition of the importance of people’s ‘stories and beliefs about their own lives and about the planet’ at the heart of the UEA programme is a welcome one, and suggests there is much as yet unrealised potential for integrating the humanities into how we approach the major issues of the modern world.

Low carbon pasts, low carbon futures is a project at the University of Hertfordshire that is looking to explore that potential.  This is what it’s about:

Climate change is a global issue by nature, but it is also a local one.  We may expect to be internationally connected – at least through the Internet and social media if not also through travel – but the quality of our lives is largely about the places in which we live and work.  We know that we need to find low carbon futures for those places, futures that combine economic health and social wellbeing.  But to do that, we need to start asking some different questions.  We need to ask about how communities actually work, bringing in the important insights of urbanism and place shaping.  And because credible responses to climate change adaptation and mitigation must involve changing human behaviour, we need to ask about how human beings interact with their places.  This means drawing on the rich evidence that history offers us of how we have shaped and re-shaped our material worlds, and our understandings of those worlds.  If we want to imagine low-carbon futures, we must first understand low-carbon pasts.

I set it up with Sarah Lloyd, Senior Lecturer in History, and Susan Parham, Head of Urbanism, with whom I’m also presenting a paper, Living heritage: Universities as anchor institutions in sustainable communities, at the Heritage 2012 conference in Porto.  This work is at an early stage so we’d welcome ideas and discussion on the ways in which history can contribute to debates around sustainability but also more broadly on the potential for humanities to inform and help shape inter- and multi-disciplinary approaches to research, development, innovation – and teaching.

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