May 15 2021 | Posted by WUN

WUN Special Program for Early Career Researchers


“The WUN ECR programme is a timely example of the importance of global communication, particularly during an international crisis. Understanding the current pressures on our junior colleagues, and examining potential solutions, have been key components of our discussions over the last few months. These shared experiences of the next generation of WUN researchers will help shape the future as we grapple with the challenges of how to deliver sustainable development post-pandemic while mitigating the impacts of climate change.”

Professor Debbie Smith, Chair of the WUN Early Career Researcher Working Group

Establishing collegial networks is key to successful research 

Successful research depends enormously on collaboration, and collegial networks established by researchers are essential to its vitality. These networks, traditionally sustained through research conferences, research workshops and seminars, and in-person collaborative visits—often on an international scale—are especially important for the early career development of researchers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has extinguished or severely limited most of these networking opportunities, while at the same time imposing major financial stresses on universities. Early career researchers (ECRs) are especially likely to be adversely affected by these challenges. The pandemic is also an unprecedented opportunity to find new ways of nurturing research talent, notably in areas that fall with the WUN umbrella research theme of sustainable development and as a consequence are particularly dependent on international collaboration.

As a response to these challenges, and in collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), WUN has developed a programme on ‘Developing the next generation of research leaders for sustainable development’. This programme consists of a series of virtual workshops, each thematically focused on a UN Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG), that bring together ECRs interested in establishing connections to colleagues in the field.

WUN has also established a working group to identify the most significant problems ECRs currently face and provide recommendations on how they might be best overcome.

Events in the series 

The programme was launched on 28 October, and featured remarks by Professor Jeffrey Sachs, President of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Watch the event here.

The programme has subsequently held workshops on SDG 13 (Climate Action), SDG 4 (Quality Education), and SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities).

Each workshop featured distinguished speakers including Ovais Sarmad, Deputy Executive Secretary for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); and Raf Tuts, Director of the Global Solutions Division of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT).

During the workshops, participants –ECRs as well as more senior researchers – also took part in virtual meeting room sessions, each tailored to a specific research interest, to help foster international networks and collaborations.

As the pandemic creates severe challenges for early career researchers, this WUN programme aims to bridge the divide

Calvin Chung, an Assistant Professor in Geography and Resource Management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CHUK), noted that “It feels like networking with a purpose.” “I look forward to having more of these kinds of conversations as a means to pursue more interdisciplinary research and to find out when other ECRs, and more senior researchers, are thinking along similar lines to me about future research priorities.”

June workshops: SDG 5, 8 and 15

  • Sustainable Development Goal 5: Gender Equality on 8 June 2021

The introductory speaker is Ms Bineta Diop, African Union Special Envoy for Women, Peace and Security.

  • Sustainable Development Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth on 15 June 2021

The introductory speakers are Dr Romina Boarini, Director, OECD Centre for Well-Being, Inclusion, Sustainability and Equal Opportunity; and Mr Oliver Chinganya, Director, African Centre for Statistics of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

  • Sustainable Development Goal 15: Life on Land on 22 June 2021

The introductory speaker is Dr Jane Goodall DBE, Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace.


WUN ECR Working Group

The career development working group, drawn from representatives of member universities, was established to investigate and make recommendations on effective pathways to ensure the career progress of ECRs in the post-pandemic context, with a focus on fields related to sustainable development. It includes both ECR and more senior members. The group will report on the many challenges currently faced by ECRs, and advise on opportunities to strengthen support for their career development.

“The programme is based on a solid framework of exposing ECRs to more senior faculty from around the world in a forum that inspires discussion, questions and networking,” said Elena Carbone, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutrition at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a senior research member of the initiative. “I know that I would have appreciated an opportunity like this when I was an ECR myself: both to connect internationally with senior researchers with similar interests, and to gain insight into academic careers more generally.”

A key strength of the working group is that the diversity of its members—drawn from across the network—allows WUN to say something distinctive about the problems that are common to member universities, but are expressed in different local contexts.

“It has been great to have the opportunity to voice my concerns and connect with others who are experiencing similar issues,” said Chung, who is a member of the working group. “We were all very perplexed at the beginning, when we first encountered this COVID-19 situation, and we were not sure about whether we were being overly anxious about particular things, or whether they were actually worth paying attention to.”