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Juggling two hats: A RENEW PhD student’s journey in sustainable governance & IUCN chairing

Juggling two hats: A RENEW PhD student’s journey in sustainable governance & IUCN chairing


Published on 7 November 2023

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A profile picture of Sophie Stenson Sophie Stenson – RENEW Theme: 2 PhD Student


Part of the beauty of the RENEW project is the collaboration of interdisciplinary researchers, across multiple organisations and working with partners to try and bridge the gaps that slow our progress towards a sustainable future. As part of my contribution to this collaborative effort, I wear two hats: one as a RENEW PhD student studying sustainable governance and the other as the Chair of the IUCN NCUK’s CEC working group.

Starting a PhD journey on the RENEW project at the University of Exeter

I had initially developed the idea for my PhD research topic almost a year before hearing about the RENEW project. At that time, I was desperately seeking collaborations and opportunities to try to fund my research independently. I feel very grateful for the support I was given by academics at the University of Exeter in this pursuit and also organisations such as Conservation Careers, through which I was eventually put in touch with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

An image of the University of Exeter ESIAbove: The Environment and Sustainability Institute, a community based on collaboration and interdisciplinary research. Image: University of Exeter

As it turned out, the IUCN’s National Committee for the UK (NCUK) were putting together expert working groups for each of their 7 commissions. My contact at IUCN suggested that I should join the Commission on Education and Communication (CEC) working group, and within 4 months, I was passed the baton to Chair the group.

As part of my role with the IUCN, with the support of our working group (now 8 members strong!), we organised a series of webinars with sector specialists to generate dynamic discussions about topics like:

Nature education for sustainability
Youth engagement in practice
The role of zoos in the future of conservation education
The importance of conserving conservationists
Nature connectedness
The UK’s nature education strategy
Career paths through sustainability education
Representations of environmental issues in children’s literature

An image of people networkingAbove: Researchers networking at the University of Exeter.

Generating meaningful collaborations

Through this series, we have been so pleased to see the level of support for many of these topics being joined by representatives from many of the most influential conservation organisations in the UK and the Department for Education. This enthusiasm has translated to exciting collaborations; from becoming key supporters of the Natural History GCSE being developed by OCR, discussing issues of mental health support for conservationists worldwide and becoming part of a Global Nature Education Coalition. We are also looking forward next year to webinars focussing on diversity, inclusion and accessibility in conservation.

Through my work as part of the RENEW project and chairing the CEC working group, there are of course many parallels in the topics we work on; community action in conservation, engagement with the natural environment and the psychology of conservationist work. I feel very fortunate to be able to discuss these topics with experts in their field in both my roles.

Exploring conservation impact at the community level

I should also mention that this work is carried out voluntarily by all working group members, who also work full-time. Although I find my involvement rewarding, I also recognise my privilege in being able to afford time to contribute to these efforts. Part of my PhD project will delve into this very topic: to what extent does the UK conservation sector depend on voluntary contributions? How accessible is conservation at a community level? And what impact does this have on the conservation work carried out?

My hope is, that through these discussions, we are facilitating a dynamic network of conservationists from different specialisations in communication and education to streamline our efforts towards a more sustainable future.

If you’d like to know more about the IUCN NCUK’s CEC working group, more information is available on our website or feel free to get in touch at:

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