Taking into account your research interests and very impressive scientific achievements, please tell me how you understands the term sustainable development.
This question can’t be answered in one sentence. Why? This term has evolved for a very long time from the original meaning, with the help of which in the history of the 20th century civilisation, attempts were made to notice the problem of the imbalance between economic, industrial and civilisation development and social needs in the face of environmental or ecological pressure. Agenda 21 should be mentioned as the turning point. This programming document of the first UN assembly strategically presents the issues of world development in the context of sustainable development. However, today’s understanding of the Agenda is broader and deeper. On the one hand, we have formalised SDGs which are considered to be the main benchmarks. On the other hand, sustainable development is a certain state of mind, i.e. actual awareness: scientific, social, political, of local government – depending on the reference points that accompany us every day in self-realisation and in setting out our own actions and those undertaken by institutions for which we are responsible. In conclusion, it seems to me that sustainable development is a sure way of coming to this state of mind that will lead us to an ideal picture in which all SDGs – not fully describing what the world should look like, with respect for what values, ideals – are imprinted in the minds of as many people as possible. We want them to be both decision-makers and – and perhaps most importantly – individual societies of the world. This is a philosophical definition of sustainable development. This way of coming to thinking about the planet can’t be detached from our daily activities and from the situation in different regions of the world, because everyday events accompany us with varying intensity. What can we expect from people in Syria and the Middle East today in terms of achieving SDGs, when everyday life in those areas is about surviving? We must be aware that we’re talking about idealistic thinking in which we start from one point of specific prosperity. It mustn’t be forgotten that we formulate SDGs in Western culture, while the lion’s share of the world isn’t at the stage of such prosperity, such stability, and will probably have to follow the path that we have followed in an increasingly industrialised economy, and consequently affecting the environment. However, there is hope that developing countries will shorten the path to achieving these goals.
You have brought up the important subject of cultural differences. What is your approach to this issue? How to encourage and promote the pursuance of the sustainable development goals?
We should find specific points of reference. In given social habits, in a given culture, there are many points of contact with what we now call the goals of sustainable development. Only the ways of achieving them are different. If we define the area of sustainable development as a world in which we want to introduce the fullest possible element of balance between economic development, social equality and ecological pressure – then it is good. I also think that mutual civilisation assessment is an extremely difficult issue, you really need to be very well and deeply prepared to speak on such a topic at all.
Let’s now turn to your initiatives related to sustainable development. How is the concept of sustainable development manifested in your activities? I’m asking about the implemented initiatives and plans in the context of scientific work and directional activities undertaken by the Rector of the University of Gdańsk.
From the beginning of my scientific and professional career, I have been dealing with the problems of environmental protection in the context of preventing possible environmental threats. As a chemist, I mainly focus on the dangers resulting from environmental pollution with chemicals that are in the environment and can be reduced, but also those that could arise if they were to be mass-produced. In my scientific career, I have dealt with, for example, the prognosis of the effects of the presence in the environment of a fascinating group of chemicals – ionic liquids, hailed quite uncritically modern environmentally friendly solvents. It was an example of a very pioneering study in which we decided to thoroughly investigate what would actually be the effects of any leakage or penetration of this type of chemical compounds into the natural environment, before their industrial production. We conducted research from many perspectives: the toxicological one, persistence and spread of these substances in various components of the environment, as well as long-term effects of their presence. I think that what was achieved then led to a significant, deep reflection of the chemical industry on whether we are really dealing with safe substances, because that is how they were trying to define them. It did not win me, or other scientists investigating this topic, supporters in the chemical industry. It is obvious that such interference is never welcome, but I’m pleased to say that indeed these recommendations or our prognostic studies have been taken into account and the plans that the industry had associated with ionic liquids have been changed. For many years I have also been studying the effects of the presence of medicinal substances in the environment, which leave our body in a great part in an unchanged form in amounts up to 90 percent of the initial dose. Next, together with municipal sewage, they end up in the environment. Without going into details, sewage treatment plants aren’t able to cope with the treatment of these types of compounds. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs, antibiotics, beta-blockers, neurological or anti-cancer drugs – all these substances are already present in the environment at such a level that it’s possible to detect them using modern analytical methods. Until a few years ago, no one treated medicinal substances as pollutants, and at best – as negligible, trace contribution to global environmental pollution. The research that we have been conducting in my research team for several years proves that, however, despite the actually low concentrations of pharmaceuticals in the environment compared to typical chemical pollutants, they have a significant impact on the environment, because they are compounds with specific biological activity. Communicating this to the scientific world, we are convinced that the awareness of the risks posed by the presence of this type of unusual pollutants has an impact on the fact that one thinks differently about designing new or modernising existing wastewater treatment plants. It also pertains to such a simple activity as returning drugs to a chemist’s. Common awareness that drugs shouldn’t be thrown into a litter bin or flushed down the toilet is necessary. Legal regulations are also important, which should force the introduction of this type of substances to the lists subject to mandatory monitoring. We feel socially responsible for what we do and what we communicate. This is probably often unpleasant information, but intended to have a specific effect. It seems to me that these activities are fully in line with the goals of sustainable development.
As a rector? I think this question concerns the directional measures that appeared at the very beginning of this term of office. I established the Centre for Sustainable Development, whose task is to support, coordinate and disseminate all activities taking place at the university related to the achievement of the goals of the 2030 Agenda. The Centre is also responsible for the popularisation of these research results of our scientists and cooperation with the environment in the field of SDGs. We have also made an effort to ensure that the university is comparable in achieving SDGs to other universities in the world in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings. We did well in it compared to Poland and the world, we know what else we should do, but this is a reference point for us. I think the ranking will have its deserved place in the university promotion strategy. We want to be a place where we talk about SDGs, teach about them and also we actively show how to contribute to the attainment of the sustainable development goals.
The equality package should also be mentioned, which we haven’t talked much about so far as we have focused on nature and the protection of the environment. But it’s a parallel and equally valuable area of activity and the goals of sustainable development, which I also addressed as the rector, for example by amending our statute and comprehensive implementation of the policy of equality or counteracting mobbing. Here we should also mention the new ombudsman and his office dealing with these issues.
We undertake many activities for sustainable development, also from the technical side. We dream of a campus that will be a set of good technological practices in the field of renewable energy sources or micro-water management. In the near future, more and more photovoltaic panels will appear on the buildings of the UG. We want every employee and every student, when entering the university building, to be able to see how much energy their building saves through its own production, or how much it reduces the carbon footprint. We are also thinking about equipping the campus with the so-called rain gardens that use rainwater collected from gutters. At the moment, our application for funding the first such initiative is being considered. Other long-term activities include: development of the limnology station in Borucino, which we want to transform into a local monitoring and ecological volunteering centre, especially for kids from small-towns or rural areas. We also constantly support the development of our research stations that deal with maritime education, above all – the sea station on Hel. At the moment, there is an in-depth discussion on how we could show society how important the sea and its ecological sensitivity are even more intensely, and not only by means of the seal centre.
The next question was to be about educating and raising the awareness of students about the pursuance the Agenda’s goals. There has already been a lot of information on this subject, so I guess you see a huge role of education in raising students’ awareness about attaining SDG goals.
It is exactly one of the tasks of the Centre to develop and recommend such didactic modules not necessarily as obligatory elements, but as one of the elements of general academic courses in any field of study. There are also plans for postgraduate studies in this area. They are also being designed right now, so we will only see what their precise scope will be. The beginning was very cautious, but today the plans are really broad and the studies are to cover many aspects – from the socio-political, through natural, to technical and technological – that’s how we should talk about it.
Certainly – to think about research and teaching in a transdisciplinary way. And if we’re talking about sustainable development in the context of interdisciplinary research at a university, should we think about carrying out art-based environmental research projects that would be locally embedded, such as the WetlandLIFE project exploring the social, ecological, economic and cultural aspects of UK wetlands? It would be really great if we implemented projects of this type locally in connection with maritime education and activities for SDGs at the University of Gdańsk.
The effectiveness of such an undertaking depends on the willingness to communicate between disciplines, and many initiatives of this type have failed mainly due to poor communication. A lot of effort has to be put in explaining the language of our fields and disciplines to one another, which is not so obvious at all. I myself see from the perspective of university management how much we differ: we understand the term scientific research or teaching excellence differently, we have different methodological workshops, and in scientific research we define the term research hypothesis differently.
What barriers and challenges related to the goals of the 2030 Agenda with regard to the university and local environment do you see?
I’ve mentioned these barriers at the beginning. The stable and prosperous Western economies with a very well-developed middle class, which constitutes the majority of society, approach the issue differently. Then probably most of these goals are not very exotic, they are a natural factor, an element that enters general consciousness. In the case of the up-and-coming economies, one of which Poland undoubtedly is, (although it is more and more advanced in large cities) it is more difficult for SDGs to set foot in social perception. We can see that the path to reach these seventeen areas, which are indicated as filling the concept of sustainable development in the socio-political-economic-technological-natural sense, is easier in richer countries, because you can focus on more than just meeting current needs. We can then think about the climate, gender equality and the fact that water is clean and we need to save it, not buy something made of plastic. In turn, at the University, we must provide the tools and foundations for employees, students and people who work with us on a daily basis from the social and economic environment to see that we are an institution that cares about achieving the goals of the 2030 Agenda. For example: introducing elements related to sustainable development to the tender provisions, portfolio of achievements of the service provider, care for the quality of the environment, equality matters. In conclusion, let’s do everything to make the path to this state of mind and the achievement of sustainable goals as short as possible. From our university perspective, we are able to do it!
Thank you very much for the interview! Good luck in the pursuance the goals of the 2030 Agenda!
The interview was carried out by Irena Chawrilska, PhD.