University of Helsinki established the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science aka HELSUS on 1st January 2018, so we are now three years in operation. This age as a child would mean passing through temper tantrums and gaining more independence. 

I have been a part time director of HELSUS since the fall 2018. The emphasis here is on the part time. It has not always been easy to allocate time between all that comes along with this position and with other pre-existing academic duties, in particular, teaching and supervision at all academic levels. Forgetting the struggle with managing time, this unique stance gives me a possibility to reflect from the inside on what has become of HELSUS so far. And also, a bit on what kinds of prospects and challenges I see for HELSUS in coming years. Community expansion and international recognition of HELSUS are the two elements that I would like to address along with the obvious angle – the role that HELSUS has in materializing the new University of Helsinki 2030 strategy in terms of being a frontrunner in sustainability. 

HELSUS community has been growing fast 

At the start in 2018, the HELSUS community consisted of roughly 300 researchers at our University, while three years later we are close to 500 individuals in total. As an organization, HELSUS is permanent with its own working order, but the development was greatly accelerated by profiling funding from Academy of Finland at the starting phase, to recruit internationally unique set of sustainability science professors. Being a cross-faculty operational unit (which is the official jargon-like term for HELSUS!) means reaching across seven vastly different faculties and bringing together this huge diversity of researchers. 

The power of HELSUS lies in our member community and its’ wide networks. The societal impact it brings out happens via not only unique and versatile research agenda, but also through education and outreach activities. And there is ample evidence that reaching beyond disciplinary boundaries and building of new and bold sustainability-driven collaborations does really pay off. In 2020 there has been an increasing flow of incoming interdisciplinary research projects. Over time, this will hugely increase the impact and recognition of University of Helsinki nationally and internationally in the field of sustainability science.  

This growing recognition will also attract great undergraduate and graduate students with a mission to make a better world – with a power of thought. For ongoing research projects – and also many that did not yet receive funding – I am super impressed and so proud as I can be. Especially seeing young scholars taking active role in the field – either winning their academic funding races or making innovative teaching experimentations inside this community – has been simply breathtaking to observe. The deep engagement and collaboration among the group of 11 top-notch sustainability science professors is clearly one key motor of making a change. 

HELSUS coordination team, with coordination unit currently hosted by Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, is becoming too slim to meet the expectations from the growing community. We seem to nowadays struggle with too many parallel demands. One of the underused opportunities that we should work harder for is collaborating with other similar initiatives at our University, like HSSC, INAR, or ONE HEALTH, and of course using the strong connection between URBARIA and HELSUS. By using this metaphor of raising a child, it’s now time to enter kindergarten and learn to share toys wisely with buddies.

toddler snow
Internationalization of HELSUS has been set as one of the main future goals 

Research and education toward sustainability is a truly global exercise. One of the most rewarding events from my director’s watch was the hosting a virtual workshop with the leaders of key European sustainability science institutes in December 2020. All 15 invited institutes responded to our call, and the meeting time was well spent in familiarizing with each other’s research agendas and ways of working toward transformative societal change. Joint activities were also enthusiastically brainstormed into 2021 and beyond, so there seems to be call for this type of institutional level networking. 

It felt very good that HELSUS  was received well – with still being a toddler among the leading “teenaged” institutes in Europe (with the first ones being the Environment Institute at Cork University established in 2000 and Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development in Utrecht founded in 2001). We discussed a lot about importance of having critical mass but creating safe space for developing sustainability as a science, with the urge to also understand normativity within sustainability. Institutional ability to create and foster visions beyond the unsustainable status quos matters. 

In practice, organizational positions of sustainability institutes were found to vary a lot within European universities. Sadly, we also found out that one of the front running institutes in Europe, STEPS Centre at Sussex University, will be closed in 2021 due to end of funding and institutional support.  

What about a way forward for HELSUS? 

After visiting the boards of all seven member faculties in the fall 2020, it seems clear that all faculties have maintained their original commitment level and genuinely see sustainability as a core element in their future action plans, albeit not as their only aspiration. Sustainability and responsibility are also one of the four cornerstones of University of Helsinki strategy toward 2030. 

While the position of HELSUS can also be seen precarious – floating somewhere between top, middle and grass root levels – and keenly relying on the financial support of both rectorate and member faculties, this also brings out the full breadth of our activities. It also enables ownership at various levels that would not otherwise be possible. The biggest question for the future of HELSUS at University of Helsinki as an organization is, in my opinion, whether we see the benefits from having HELSUS coming (more narrowly) through faculties – or is it something that is more in general interest and characterizes the modus operandi of our university in the future? HELSUS would not be able to meet the original ambition level set in 2018 without having strong top-level commitment from our rectorate.  One hopes to maintain this level of commitment also beyond the era of current strategy. The need for bringing knowledge-based solutions to sustainability challenges will be there for researchers to tackle. That one even a child would know. 

Anne Toppinen 

Anne Toppinen is Professor of Forest Economics and Marketing at the Department of Forest Sciences, University of Helsinki, and Director of Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science. 

Photo by Paige Cody on Unsplash 

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1 Comment

  1. Hi Anne

    Thanks for sharing these very insightful thoughts on the challenges and opportunities for HELSUS as a leading interdisciplinary institute within the University of Helsinki. From my time at the Environmental Research Institute in Cork, it is clear that unlike schools there is no template for running research centres and institutes which makes it very important that we share this kind of information between our various research institutes.

    Best wishes,

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