Planting a seed and watching it blossom into something beautiful
By Neale McDevitt
Canadian art has its Group of Seven and the McGill School of Environment (MSE) has its Group of Six – the half-dozen members of the interfaculty committee who first sat down to draw up the ambitious blueprint for this trend-setting school. With its ambitious mandate to take on the world’s most pressing and complex environmental issues by cross-pollinating the hard and social sciences, the MSE stands as a model of interdisciplinary research, teaching and outreach. It is only fitting that this year, in which the MSE is celebrating its tenth anniversary, Marilyn Scott was named Director. Scott, one of the original members of that Group of Six, has played an integral role in growing the School from 1998 when the MSE first opened its doors to some 40 students, to today in which close to 400 students register each year. Recently, Scott took time from her busy schedule to look at the School’s past, its present and its future.
Tell us about the MSE’s academic programs.
We run a major undergraduate program that currently has more than 300 students in our major and approximately 100 taking our minor. We also have 5-10 students per year in a diploma program. On the graduate level, we have a new graduate option that is a partnership with six different Faculties [Law, Medicine, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Management, Arts and Science] in which this diverse group of graduate students come together for nine credits worth of activities as an add-on to their department-based graduate degrees. There are currently 12 students in that program.
And on the research front?
We try to provide a bridge between the social sciences and humanities, and the natural and applied sciences. We have 15 jointly appointed faculty and more than 50 associate members doing environmental research in various departments and at research centres throughout McGill. The MSE is very effective at bridging the wide range of work being done across the University.
Does “bridging” mean taking an interdisciplinary approach?
This is essential to our whole philosophy. The guiding principle upon which the school was founded was to bring together the various faculties in order to allow students to approach the issues from a much more complete and integrated perspective. We can’t deal with today’s environmental challenges or make recommendations on what to do unless we are armed with a more complete understanding of the natural environment and the possible impact on society as well. It is naïve to think these problems can be solved with a single approach.
Is this approach novel?
We are fairly unique compared to most undergraduate programs in Canada, which focus either on environmental sciences or environmental studies. Our programs are much more integrated. We want to expose students to and have them learn in an environment that is made up of different perspectives. At the very outset of the MSE, the core training at the undergraduate level involved a set of six – and now seven – courses in which students actually see a number of professors from different disciplines in the same classroom talking to each other and working on a single problem. They witness the ways a variety of perspectives come to bear on environmental issues, and realize that each perspective is valid and must be taken into account.
An important part of their training is witnessing, experiencing and taking part in this process of interdisciplinary collaboration that goes beyond biologists talking to chemists to include professors from law, management, social sciences and humanities and the most basic sciences.
That way of thinking penetrates virtually everything the MSE does. The jointly appointed faculty we hire have a deep-centred understanding of the importance of this type of dialogue and the value it has in terms of understanding the problems we face and in, hopefully, coming up with solutions that can work.
Are there opportunities for students to apply their knowledge in the “real world?”
We are very involved in promoting an engagement with the public. We do it at the undergraduate level with students who have final-year projects where they work in partnership with outside organizations and take a three-credit course in which they work as a team with a client that is often from outside the University. Student groups have also tackled sustainability projects within McGill.
How do you recruit professors to the MSE?
Through partnerships with Geography, Biology, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, the Redpath Museum, Philosophy, Anthropology, Urban Planning, Plant Science, Natural Resource Sciences and Law, we have hired 15 new professors over the past 10 years. These jointly appointed faculty share their academic responsibilities between the MSE and the partner department. The recruitment process involves extensive dialogue to identify outstanding scholars who serve the needs of both units.
In addition to our jointly appointed faculty, we have a wide network of associate members. These are individuals who hold a primary position in one of McGill’s departments but who have an interest in the environment and who see their work in some way related to environmental concerns. Often they are people who feel a deep personal commitment to the issues and who want to lend a hand. Often they approach us to indicate their interest in becoming involved with the MSE. In addition, I often scan through the different websites of McGill departments to see who is doing what kind of research and if it would be complimentary to the work we are doing.
We are currently talking to two librarians who are anxious to provide library support to the MSE on both campuses. I’m hoping that they will be interested in becoming associate members.
What was the mood like when the MSE first opened back in 1998?
People were extremely enthusiastic. Some students were taking our courses as electives because they were interested, but many immediately transferred out of their major and into the MSE because they were sufficiently interested in this novel approach to training and thinking about the environment … so interested that they were willing to take an extra semester and even an extra year to complete this new degree.
In the first few years the enrolment grew very quickly. In recent years enrolment is increasing on the Macdonald campus. This is very encouraging because we have been making a special effort to attract students to Mac because there is lots of room for growth there.
Were you disheartened during the Canadian federal election by the way the environment became a secondary issue as soon as the economy went into a tailspin?
The immediate urgency of any crisis has a way of overtaking whatever priorities you may have had. But I was impressed with the attention put on the Liberals’ Green Shift and also by the Green Party platform. The dialogue on environmental issues throughout the election really raised people’s attention in a way I’ve never seen before in a Canadian election. Even though it might not have played out as the driving, dominant factor that many people had hoped, I think it had an important influence in bringing these issues to the forefront. It will make it easier in coming dialogues, discussions and public debates for people to understand the significance of these issues.
I really think in some circles there will be some dialogue about the link between what has happened with the economic downturn and environmental concerns. Once people are able to stand back from the immediate economic crisis and reflect on what is driving these issues, hopefully they will understand the idea that we can’t grow our economy at this ever-increasing pace without harming the environment. Perhaps we will be able to identify ways communities and society can flourish within the context of a sustainable biosphere.
Is your association with the MSE a result of long-standing environmental concerns?
Not at all, actually. I’m professor of parasitology at Mac. My personal research has been indirectly related to environment but I certainly had no in-depth understanding of the environmental concerns before 1998.
During a sabbatical, I received word that each of the faculties of Arts, Science and Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, were pulling together small committees to think about how McGill might develop an serious interfaculty initiative with regard to the environment. I thought it was a fantastic idea and became one of the members of the Mac committee. Subsequently, those committees merged into one interfaculty committee and I was one of the six on that committee that drew up the original blueprint for the school. It was a very formative process for me and I have felt a strong allegiance to the MSE ever since.
How important has the school been for you?
I believe that the school can make a significant impact at McGill, in Montreal and on a much broader scale nationally and internationally. Many people don’t have the opportunity to be involved with something of that potential magnitude and I feel privileged. I am learning every single day. There is no end of things to come to understand in the range of concerns and the diverse range of perspectives that come to bear on these problems. Has this been life changing for me? Yes, absolutely.
What’s next for the MSE?
We’ve identified four key areas for significant growth. At the undergraduate level we’re looking to find ways to expand opportunities for students to be directly involved in hands-on environmental initiatives. This means supporting internships and providing more opportunities for field work.
At the graduate level, we’re developing new degrees, a Master’s and PhD in the environment that would focus on environment training explicitly. One of our priorities is to get these running in the next few years.
We have strong ambitions to move forward with our research agenda. Increasingly, our research and teaching programs will be framed around how to make optimal environmental choices that take into account various environmental worldviews and that aim to sustain healthy societies within a flourishing biosphere.
In terms of areas or sectors of specific research interest, we’ve got expertise in biodiversity conservation issues, in climate and energy, in disease and environment, in environmental ethics, food security and water.
On the public service side, we want to expand our role in promoting environmental literacy and numeracy – helping people understand the problems, helping them understand what is at risk, and helping them see there is a whole variety of approaches that, when brought together, can really make a difference. We hope to do that through programs that will be of interest to students, staff and faculty, to alumni and to the public at large.