Report: Sustainability Governance PhD Day

Published on
December 28, 2017

Forty staff members and 80 PhD students in four chair groups of Wageningen University have pooled resources in research and education in the new Wageningen Centre of Sustainability Governance. One of the goals of the centre is to contribute to world-leading research and education on the politics, sociology and law of sustainability governance.

On 7 December 2017, the centre held its first PhD Day. The day opened with an inspiring keynote presentation by Prof. Rik Leemans, chair of the Environmental Systems Analysis Group, editor-in-chief of the Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability and co-writer of the 2007 IPCC Report. He discussed the important and timely topic of ‘Protecting humans and other species from dangerous environmental change.’

Stimulating discussions included the potential for innovative changes that might reverse the emission of CO2 and the challenges faced in dealing with climate deniers.

The keynote was followed by three parallel sessions with a total of 11 presentations by PhD researchers in the cluster. The presentations covered a variety of local, national and global issues in the areas of biodiversity financing, climate change, agriculture, sustainability, forestry, food security, vegetable seeds, aquaculture/fisheries and renewable energy. Each presentation was followed by feedback from two reviewers, also PhD researchers in the cluster, and questions from the audience.

Although Wageningen School of Social Sciences (WASS) also organises a PhD day for all PhDs, involving presentations, reviews by staff members from other chair groups, and feedback, the reviewing process of the Wageningen Centre of Sustainability Governance involved PhDs only. Also, much more time was reserved for discussions so presentations were relatively short.

Attendee Marijn Faling, Department of Social Sciences, commented:

'What makes this day unique is that it brings together PhDs working on very similar topics, namely all in the field of sustainability governance. Also, because the PhDs act as reviewers of each other's papers, the day also contributes to the practicing of a wider range of academic skills. Reviewing and giving feedback are academic skills that need to be practiced.' 

Joana Mattei Faggin, Forest and Nature Conservation Policy Group (FNP), also attended and had her paper reviewed by two PhDs, who gave her very detailed feedback, especially on what they missed and on what could be clarified. The best part of the day, however, was her discovery that she and other PhDs from different chair groups actually share more than they expected:

'I saw that someone writing about Kenia, for instance, could receive feedback from a Kenyan PhD who is not herself studying her country, but who was nevertheless very interested in reading and commenting the paper about it. Another example was when two people, from different groups - one talking about fishery and the other about food chains - were using the same theoretical framework and could share the challenges and difficulties of it.'


Ms Faling was also pleased with the appreciative feedback she received on her paper. Because she had to put her results in a 10-minute presentation, she was forced to think about the exact theme and contribution of the paper. This helped her come up with a revised and improved version, which is currently awaiting feedback from her supervisor. Her enthusiasm during the day was also raised when she saw what the others were working on, and how all were thinking together about how to improve their research. She found the morning's keynote speech by Prof. Rick Leemans very inspiring, too, notably the awareness required of the possible political implications and interpretations of something as intuitively straightforward as a figure or table. For instance, the use of colours might influence how something is perceived, and red always more easily raises flags than any other colour.

Attendee Eva Johan, Law and Governance Group (LAW), reviewed two drafts:

'This programme was very fruitful. I was able to take in interesting information from different fields of study. I also gained some insight into others' interests by reading their idea structures and methodology. The papers I reviewed dealt with the same concept, Entrepreneur Policy, but from different perspectives.'

Xavier Tezzo, Environmental Policy Group (ENP), emphasised the added value of the event, which can be summarised by one word: interdisciplinarity, i.e. the combining of two or more academic disciplines into one activity. In this case, the activity concerned shared perspectives on sustainable governance. He found the responses to his own presentation very useful:

'I am in the last stage of finalising my proposal and will certainly integrate some of the recommendations in the current revision.'

Mr. Tezzo was also particularly interested in two presentations on Food Governance, since they have a direct relevance for his own research. His overall impression, though, reflects a shared conclusion by many attendees:

'Being exposed to more interdisciplinary perspectives allows you to step back and recontextualise your own research focus.'