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Taking action

Putting the United Nations sustainable development goals to work at Memorial

Campus and Community

By Rebecca Cohoe

One of three special stories in the Gazette recognizing the United Nations Sustainable Development Global Goals Week, Sept. 16–25. Read them all by following the Related Content links below.

Most people want to help make the world a better place, in one way or another. But where to start?

The SDG Subcommittee stands in Memorial's Community Garden
From left are Justin Dearing, Paula Mendonca, Keith Matthews, Rebecca Cohoe, Toby Rowe, Amy Todd and Matthew Grimes, some of the faculty and staff working towards building awareness of the United Nations sustainable development goals.
Photo: Submitted

A group of faculty and staff at Memorial are working together to help provide one possible answer to that question by building awareness of the United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The SDGs are a collection of 17 linked goals that provide a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity, for people and the planet, now and into the future.”

They offer a broad, globally relevant set of themes, from Quality Education and No Poverty to Decent Work and Economic Growth and Sustainable Cities and Communities.

While the goals are intended to have near-universal relevance, they can also be translated into a more regional context, with locally meaningful activities connecting into a unified global goal.

“There’s really no limit to the ways that students, faculty, staff, alumni, and public partners might find alignment with the SDGs.” — Keith Matthews

While universities are not the focus of the SDGs, there is plenty of room for higher education to help contribute, says committee member Keith Matthews.

“I don’t think there is any one, single way for universities to respond to the calls to action within the SDGS,” said Mr. Matthews, director of Memorial’s Centre for Institutional Planning and Analysis. “There are so many distinct types of work happening at Memorial, including research, teaching and learning, and public engagement activities, along with administrative policies and procedures. There’s really no limit to the ways that students, faculty, staff, alumni, and public partners might find alignment with the SDGs. It’s a matter of learning more about them, their aims and their benefits.”

Sustainable development education

Mr. Matthews is the chair of a pan-university committee of faculty and staff who are working together to raise awareness about the SDGS generally and highlighting the work that is already being done to support them at Memorial.

The UN emblem of circular lines over land masses and encircled with wreath laurels is pictured on top of the text "Sustainable Development Goals." The "o" in goals is a circle of colour blocks.

Initiated through the Office of the Vice-President (Research,) the group is now a sub-committee of the Office of Sustainability’s Sustainability Committee.

The committee includes representatives from each of the core areas of Memorial’s mission, including research, teaching and learning, and public engagement, along with internationalization and other units and individuals with a connection to the work of the SDGs.

“The role of the education sector in the attainment of the SDG goals cannot be overstated,” said Dr. Sonja Knutson, director of Memorial’s Internationalization Office and a committee member. “Globally, institutions such as Memorial are committed to educating the future government, non-government organizations and industry leaders on sustainable development. Memorial has taken this responsibility seriously and we can take pride in our internationally recognized dedication and achievements.”

While the SDGs were adopted by the United Nations in 2015, they haven’t generally been recognized in Memorial’s institutional documents and strategies; however, since 2020, there have been a number of developments towards embedding them within the university.

In 2020 Memorial made an initial submission to the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings, a global ranking system that measures how universities are contributing to the SDGs.

Memorial did well in a variety of submitted themes during that year, and the experience of assessing Memorial’s work through the lens of the SDGs provided an interesting interpretation of Memorial’s impact — a university measure that is notoriously challenging to quantify.

International rankings

After the initial submission, the committee was formed both to provide a pan-university approach to future submissions and to increase knowledge of the SDGs at Memorial and encourage more students, faculty, and staff to consider the SDGs in their work.

The group worked together to populate submissions for each of the thematic areas as part of the 2021 process, with a particular focus on No. 14: Life Below Water, an area of considerable strength for Memorial University. Forty per cent of Memorial’s research is ocean-related.

The results of the 2021 submission represented a significant improvement compared to Memorial’s first THE Impact Ranking, moving from an overall ranking in the 301-400 range out of 1,117 institutions to the top 101-200, out of 1,406 global universities.

Memorial also received an excellent ranking in the Life Below Water category, placing 28th out of 452 universities. The committee will begin work on a 2022 submission this fall.

‘Globally relevant’

The group also worked together to develop an SDG-focused website that provides examples of the types of work taking place at Memorial within each of the SDGs.

“There is a sense of pride about Memorial’s leadership — and the efforts of our faculty, staff and students — when it comes to our sustainability and environmental initiatives.” — Dr. Paula Mendonça

The increased focus on the goals is also reflected within several current institutional planning processes, including the redevelopment of the research and public engagement strategies, both of which are expected to include the SDGs.

“At our meetings, there is a sense of pride about Memorial’s leadership — and the efforts of our faculty, staff and students — when it comes to our sustainability and environmental initiatives, which is reflected in the positive and enthusiastic attitudes of the committee members,” said Dr. Paula Mendonça, director of innovation and entrepreneurship at Memorial. “Learning more about the SDGs, and working to help others understand how their work relates to them, has been a rewarding experience. It feels good to connect the meaningful and relevant work that Memorial is doing, often in our region, to a broader, globally relevant purpose.”

What comes next?

“That’s a good question,” said Mr. Matthews. “Our committee will keep working to help raise awareness, but the real work of the SDGs will be done through the work of Memorial students, faculty, and staff who connect with the SDGs and integrate them into what they do.”

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