“It’s all about climate neutrality”

Becoming climate neutral, establishing scientific mid-level academic posts, embedding sustainability even more robustly within the university: Prof. Dr.-Ing. Nicole Saenger discusses her ambitious goals as the first vice-president for research and sustainable development.

An Interview conducted by Nico Damm and Christina Janssen on 5.7.2021

campus_d: Having officially taken office in April, do you feel as if you’ve overcome the ‘culture shock’ by now?

Saenger: Not quite, yet, for I have to admit that it’s a far cry from working within faculties. It’s like experiencing the University from scratch, even though I’ve been working here for 11 years. I’d never have thought there was such a difference, but it’s also rather exhilarating.

campus_d: What do you feel needs getting used to the most?

Saenger: That I no longer have exclusive control over my own appointments calendar. It seems to fill up as if by magic because quite a number of people have access to it. Although, this also has a good side to it as I no longer have to trouble myself with quite a lot of things.

campus_d: Your office has been newly created. Which objectives have you set out for your first term?

Saenger: I’m the first vice-president who advocates, qua office, the issue of sustainable development. In effect we are building on foundations established over the past few years, such as the “Sustainable Development Initiative” which was set up by students, tutors and staff. Sustainable development plays a major role in the overall running of the University, whereby one aim is to pool all of the many varied ideas and projects abounding in this regard.

The same applies to research into sustainable development issues, for projects in this regard have played an essential role in research as a whole for many years. It is precisely these developments which we aim to help amalgamate and then develop further in our research centres and the PhD Centre for Sustainablity Sciences. Furthermore, the UNESCO has designated us as an outstanding place of learning for sustainable development twice already, while the next application is in the pipeline. Sustainable development plays a major role in education, as well.

campus_d:  What is your personal attitude towards sustainable development?

Saenger: I grew up in West Berlin where there are lots of lakes, rivers and the like, and water-based sports are hugely popular. I gravitated quite naturally towards hydraulic civil engineering, which has also influenced my attitude that as an essential life-giving resource, water must be given protection at all costs. Humans, animals, all plant-life – all of us are entirely dependent on clean supplies of water. This is the basis of my interest in sustainable ways of using water as a resource.

We lived in California for a while where even today the level to which resources – including water – are sheer wasted is shocking. They continue to squander water in gigantic quantities, whether in the farming sector, simple car-washing, through lawn sprinklers or on golf courses. We can gradually see a similar development here in Germany: summers are becoming increasingly dry and rainfall in the past few years has been drastically low, with the effects clearly visible in forests, the agricultural sector and aquifers. Climate change is becoming apparent in many sectors and we really need to do something about it. Anyone who has children will want them to live a sustainable and enjoyable life, for which Nature provides an absolutely essential bedrock.

campus_d: What do you plan to tackle first?

Saenger: A sustainability report on the overall issue of sustainable development. This should incorporate a sustainability strategy which could be derived from the strategy concept drawn up by the university in 2020. We are already committed to providing this to the Hessian Ministry of Science (HMWK). Something I also find very important is establishing requisite specialist areas of study, one of them simply called “Sustainable Development”. We will also develop a programme of cross-discipline modules, applicable for all degree courses and study areas, which students can then select from in order to learn more about specific sustainability issues. Our supplementary study course for social and cultural sciences already provides such courses, and one aim is to integrate these with additional technical modules.

campus_d: Will it become compulsory to take such sustainability modules?

Saenger: I’d welcome it, but this is naturally something which needs to be discussed by the executive board, the committees as well as the faculties. I feel it is important that our students orientate themselves in this regard, after all, it will be expected of them on the job market.

campus_d: Will measureable objectives play a role in the sustainability strategy?

Saenger: The strategy provides orientation, whilst key indicators are dealt with in the sustainability report. The HMWK has announced an ambitious target: CO2-neutral by 2030. As far as I’m concerned this is too soon and overly ambitious. The true aim is for climate neutrality. For this to be achieved we will need to weave in many additional key indicators which have nothing to do with CO2.

campus_d: Some university buildings will need significant renovations in order to be deemed climate neutral. How is this to be financed?

Saenger: A good question. Buildings on both the Haardtring campus as well as the Dieburg campus are affected. Our budget alone will not suffice and we will require federal state aid.

campus_d:  Will this be forthcoming?

Saenger: If the state truly means business then it will have to supply the means. At the moment the funds we would need have not been budgeted.

campus_d: Which other objectives are on your list?

Saenger: Establishing scientific mid-level academic posts. In other words, doctoral students who either did their PhDs at our university or at one of our partner universities, as stipulated in the University pact of the state of Hesse. However, appropriate funds have yet to be made available. Negotiations with the Ministry are also still on-going regarding agreed objectives. We are also already working on a concept in this regard.

campus_d: How many posts will be able to be funded?

Saenger: I’m presently relying on posts for around ten post-docs during the first year. Furthermore, I plead for these to be three-quarter posts, because half-time posts don’t pay enough here in our rather expensive Rhine-Main region. These young people genuinely wish to be able to stand on their own two feet.

campus_d: Ten three-quarter posts would certainly be a start …

Saenger: Not exactly a huge number, I know, but it certainly points the way forward, and is a package in addition to what we are already sponsoring. The university already offers Doctoral-candidate scholarships via the post-graduate school, which adds up to quite a few each year. Then we also have the research projects, for which the researchers themselves procure funding. These are essentially the conventional mainstays of how the scientific mid-level academic posts has been funded to date.

campus_d: Do you already have an inkling as to when the first posts could be staffed?

Saenger: We’re hoping this will happen during the second half of the year.

campus_d: Where will the posts be established, in the faculties?

Saenger: This is still being discussed. The posts will be spread across all subject areas and the entire process project-related. Then we need to observe who actually applies, and in which way. One aspect I am certain of is that they must be genuine post-docs who graduated here, for then the HMWK will evaluate us as a genuine University for Applied Sciences. We also need this younger, new generation of scientists. We wish to demonstrate that we are an institution where one can obtain a first-class doctorate.

campus_d:  The h_da is the only university in Germany permitted to offer courses for a Doctor of Sustainability Science title. Have candidates already applied to be accepted for the course?

Saenger: A large number, from throughout Germany and even across Europe. By dint of us being a partner in the European University Partnership EUt+, we’re able to observe just how high the demand is to apply for the course. We currently have eight doctoral candidates, with an additional four applications being processed. In view of the fact that the PhD Centre for Sustainability Sciences was only founded two years ago, this pays tribute to its obvious success. We are also endeavouring to establish a German-French College for Doctoral Students via the EUt+, which would eventually be extended to incorporate the other EUt+ partners.

campus_d:  Where do you spot opportunities to promote sustainability within the framework of the EUt+? Moreover, just how advanced are the other universities in this field?

Saenger:  Current statuses vary greatly across the entire EUt+. We are the only University for Applied Sciences in the network, for the other partners are all Technical Universities. In the area of sustainable development, in particular, we are right up there out in front with the leading pack. Troyes Technical University has maintained a Sustainability Lab over the past 20 years, which is very active in research projects. The same is true for Dublin and Spain. The issue tends to be viewed more as a technical challenge in eastern European countries, where the focus is on waste water processes, water treatment, recycling economies and Sustainable Cities. These countries still lack what we profit from by dint of our social sciences:  overarching social perspectives. It is precisely these perspectives that we wish to introduce within the EUt+. It all fits nicely together.

campus_d: The sustainability courses offered by the h_da within the EUt+ framework have already attracted a large contingent of international students …

Saenger: Yes, that’s true. This current semester Professor Steffensen is offering two courses which have both attracted many applications. Students from almost every country in the EUt+ are taking part – which I think is great! We need more of this kind of cooperation. We would like to set up joint Bachelor and Master study course programmes. However, this is not as easy as it sounds because in spite of ‘Bologna’, each university offers its own areas of study with differing contents. We all need to get together to discuss how we can streamline study course contents as well as simplify acknowledgement of the varying types of accomplishments. As far as sustainability as an issue is concerned, we aim to establish either a joint Sustainability Lab or Institute.

campus_d: Are there any other subject areas alongside sustainability which would warrant additional attention within the EUt+ framework?

Saenger: In research terms we are also busily setting up EUt+ labs focused on Nano technology and materials. This is the area that’s most advanced to date, and we’ve already held a workshop dealing with the issues. Then we are certain to establish something focused on the field of Data Science – which is also a major focal point at the h_da.

campus_d: What do you feel about the Hochschullehrerbund’s (HLB) calls to reduce the teaching responsibilities during semesters at universities for applied sciences from 18 to 12 hours per week, as well as to assign a research assistant to each and every ‘Prof’?

Saenger: I really welcome the initiative – but I’ve no idea how it could be financed. In effect it implies that every professor at a university for applied sciences conducts research. This isn’t yet true in our case, even though developments lean towards this direction. After all, the more we focus on such developments, the louder calls for such changes will become. A Ministry will then eventually respond, at some stage.

Translation: Paul Comley

Contact details

Christina Janssen
Scientific editor
Press department
Tel.: +49.6151.16-30112
E-Mail: christina.janssen@h-da.de

Nico Damm
Scientific editor
Press department
Tel.: +49.6151.16-37783
E-Mail: nico.damm@h-da.de