Sustainability“A Routine Matter, Not a Constant Issue”

23. February 2024

Porträt Karin Schumacher

Interview with Vice-Rector Karin Schumacher on sustainability, the new priority area

Sustainability is very high on the agenda of the new Rectorate and is to be embedded as broadly as possible in the university as a cross-sectoral topic – alongside digitaIisation and diversity. Since the beginning of the winter semester it has been located in the Vice-Rectorate for Quality Development and Sustainability headed by Prof. Dr Karin Schumacher. In an interview, the biologist gives information, amongst other things, about the role in this context of a strategy paper in preparation and what opportunities the comprehensive research university opens up.

Even if current wars and political conflicts dominate our awareness of crisis at present, the global challenge of our age continues to be action to mitigate the effects of climate change and, by extension, a sparing use of the resources available on our planet. In this context the principle of sustainability is growing more and more important. What do you understand by sustainability and what activities are planned at Heidelberg University?

When it comes to sustainability I refer to the definition from the Brundtland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development of the United Nations. It clearly names three dimensions: environmental, economic and social. Sustainability is therefore a very broad topic, which we want to take forward in research and teaching. Precisely as a comprehensive research university we can − indeed we must − bring our whole weight to bear by putting our heads together and collaborating across the disciplines. Another factor is that the university itself is a big operational enterprise. There, too, we must do our utmost to become even more sustainable.

What was the idea behind locating sustainability in your vice-rectorate?

Quality development goes on in all areas of university performance. The idea now is to add sustainability as a further quality criterion and to embed it institutionally. This means that the related processes and tools will be constantly reviewed and evaluated. Ideally, sustainability should not be a constant issue, but, at some stage, a matter of routine. Then, eventually, we will not need a separate vice-rectorate for it because sustainability will be firmly established everywhere.

We’re still at the very beginning of the process though. What does the roadmap look like?

The Heidelberg Center for the Environment, which has been dealing with environmental and sustainability issues for many years now, has initiated the launching of a Sustainability Think Tank. That is the bottom-up element in the process. We in the Rectorate have the task of accompanying this process and seeing how, and where, we can add to it, top down. People from all areas of the university are working in the think tank – students, academics, representatives of the administration. Whoever would like to is still welcome to join in the process. The plan is in the autumn to adopt a university sustainability strategy setting out the goals and specific projects.

Can you expand on that a little?

Detailed sustainability goals will certainly affect the whole of university operations, for instance when it comes to solar photovoltaic power generation. Finding potential for saving is also an issue. In the campus Im Neuenheimer Feld we have some outdated appliances that use a great deal of electricity, such as the ultra-cold storage freezers needed for research. If they could be replaced by more energy-efficient models in the next few years that would already be a big step forward. But another important point is how we manage to embed sustainability in our teaching, even better than now. You can hardly imagine any course where that would not be feasible. The students have given strong support to pushing the sustainability issue and rightly expect appropriate programmes and activities. Regarding the area of research, the first step will certainly be to take stock of what is already being done in this field. For example, we have incredibly strong public health research, great expertise in environmental law or exciting cooperation at the interface of politics and life sciences. We want to highlight all that even more and give back-up from the Rectorate when it comes to clustering and networking. We are also thinking about incentives for relevant projects.

What is the relationship between must and can? What external requirements are there?

Apart from the obligatory reporting on operational matters, which means drawing up a climate action plan, the state government has not yet announced any specific requirements. Of course, the financing policy of the science ministry will focus more strongly on sustainability topics in the next few years. The DFG, as a major funding body, has recently started asking for sustainability to be mentioned in every project proposal, though that is not yet a decisive criterion. So – not least in view of such developments – we should be well prepared in this area.