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Addressing inertia and isolation in teaching and studying global environmental change in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine

PIIS221979310008539-5-1
DOI10.37490/S221979310008539-5
Publication type Article
Status Published
Authors
Affiliation: Estonian University of Life Sciences
Affiliation: «RZ. Research. Management. Communication»
Affiliation: Pskov State University
Affiliation: Belorussian-Russian University of Mogilev
Journal namePskov Journal of Regional Studies
EditionIssue 1 (41)
Pages102-114
Abstract

It is typical for the region of the former USSR that universities and research centres have decent expertise in mono-disciplinary research while multi- and transdisciplinary studies are not yet well developed, even if adopting research agendas across a broader range of disciplines appears to be a clear way for higher policy relevance or a gainful publication strategy. This observation is the main rational behind this overview taking stock of the problem. It is based on an extensive evidence collected by authors, who through the recent decades gained extensive experience of stock-taking studies, coordination of international capacity-building projects for higher education, directed over a dozen of summer schools and coordinated a research training network addressing multidisciplinary aspects of environmental sciences in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. The objective of this paper is to identify drivers and root-causes of the problem, and to outline directions for possible solutions.

Our findings demonstrate that poor performance of research communities in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine often has to do with structural issues, such as resilient institutional legacies of the past either from the USSR epoch or the shocking socio-economic transition of the 1990s. These legacies are enhanced by low financial allocation to research and higher education, as well as top-down and paperwork-intensive management of the academia by the state. There are no simple solutions to this situation, as something needs to be done beyond the scope of a national higher education or research reform. The Bologna process potentially provides solutions to some problems, e.g. it provides for university autonomy, calls for internationally recognizable qualification frameworks (or at least for one compatible with established practices in the European Higher Education Area) and supports academic mobility. However, its implementation in the region, especially in Belarus and Russia, is problematic. EU capacity building and academic mobility support plays an important role, and at the moment represent the most serious attempt to alleviate the situation.

Keywordscurriculum development, higher education reform, European Higher Education Area, multidisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, research policy
AcknowledgmentThis work was supported by funding from EU Erasmus+ Program (Jean Monnet Projects – grant 587697) and the institutional research funding IUT (IUT21-1) of the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research
Publication date13.05.2020
Number of characters34354
1 Introduction. Global environmental change is a reality affecting all the levels and scales of human society and becoming a key challenge for policy-makers and academia [5; 6; 7]. To address this challenge and to move the global and local social-ecological systems to transformative mode, the policy makers need, among many other things, to learn how to translate their policy questions to research questions, while the research community needs to translate their research findings to policy solutions [7; 9]. To support this, we need truly multidisciplinary environmental science, broadly employing tools and methods of social and policy sciences [2; 5].
2 At the same time, the global dimension of environmental change is strongly featured by local particularities. To study environmental change, a research approach encompassing researchers from all world’s regions is desirable. Two main drivers behind this trend can be identified: the first is a formal one referring to political legitimacy, and second is a substantial one in that the inclusion of the local and regional can contribute to improved quality of research on the global level.
3 While most international research networks, programmes, and assessment processes in the area of natural resources, sustainable development, and global change (e.g. Future Earth, SDSN, IPBES) invest heavily in increasing participation of currently under-represented countries and regions in Africa, South East Asia, and Latin America, the target countries of the proposed action, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine are not just under-represented, they are often not present at all in these global networks. At the same time, their research capacity is potentially very high, although the way their research efforts are framed and presented affects badly its international visibility. The EU was addressing this issue since early 1990s, and although many thousands funded actions have been implemented since then, the progress was very slow, if not unnoticeable.
4 As we could observe, it is typical for the region of the former USSR that universities and research centres have decent expertise in mono-disciplinary research while multi- and transdisciplinary studies are not yet well developed, even if adopting research agendas across a broader range of disciplines appears to be a clear way for higher policy relevance or a gainful publication strategy. This is the case even for environmental sciences – a field that by definition needs an interdisciplinary approach [6]. It is still dominantly perceived as a pure engineering/natural science discipline, and its social science is still grossly unexplored. Hence it is apparent, that strong action should be taken to demonstrate the advantages of multidisciplinary methodology in environmental sciences and the advantages of identifying, understanding and accounting for the social and political dimensions of environmental problems and the subsequent development of policy options.
5 This observation is the main rational behind this overview taking stock of the problem. It is based on an extensive evidence collected by authors, who through the last decade gained extensive experience of stock-taking studies, coordination of capacity-building projects for higher education, directed over a dozen of summer schools and coordinated a research training network addressing multidisciplinary aspects of environmental sciences had in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. The objective of this paper is to identify drivers and root-causes of the problem, and to outline directions for possible solutions.
6 Empirical evidence used. As mentioned, the analysis is based on the empirical evidence collected by authors. At the core of this is the Open Societies Institutes (OSI) ReSET project “Governance of Global Environmental Change: Towards a multidisciplinary discussion in tertiary environmental education in former USSR and Mongolia” implemented from 2011 to 2014 (with follow-up activities spanning to 2017). This project represented an ideal experimentation set-up, in which a group of 32 bright young environmental scholars from across Belarus, Russia and Ukraine was exposed to series of summer schools and workshops featuring a group of trainers from various environmental fields, representing 10 EU countries, including a core of the groups of trainers (6 persons) staying with the class through the whole project. The early-career scientists were tasked with group work of the development of problem-oriented multidisciplinary courses (including teaching and learning materials) to be piloted at their home institutions during the project lifetime (total 8 courses developed and piloted in two rounds). Observations from the curriculum development process and progression achieved were extremely insightful.
7 The project involved numerous on-site visits to home departments of its participants, which were taken as an opportunity to take formal and informal interviews about the various aspects of curriculum development and science production at those institutions. The calendar of training events and course piloting rounds is set in the Table 1.

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