The most burning global issues and risks are in one way or another related to water and its management. Water and water resources have an impact on, and are impacted by, climate change, energy production, agriculture and human health and well-being. Consumer choices also always affect water resources. Therefore, research related to water is important.
'The world operates globally and we must be aware of what happens in the world in the equation of water, energy and food so that we will be able to prepare for various risks and perhaps act to prevent the realisation of the risks', notes Professor of Water Resource Management Olli Varis.
The Water and Development group led by Varis studies global challenges related to water. In August, the group received a donation of 2 million euros from the Land and Water Technology Foundation. The aim of the donation is to enhance the doctoral education in water engineering and to develop a new cooperation model with stakeholders.
The aim is to gather post doc researchers, doctoral candidates and students working on their master’s theses around a shared research theme. The division of duties will be made clearer and overlapping work will be eliminated, for instance, by having each doctoral candidate supervise one master’s thesis each year, thus also participating in the development of the master's programme. The objective of the five-year pilot is to produce four doctors and 20 master’s theses.
'This method combines research and teaching, and the clear division of duties increases effectiveness', explains Varis, who has been tailoring the concept together with the fundraising and leadership of the university.
Stakeholders are carefully listened to
'Our task is to educate pioneers taking the water industry forwards and bringing the sort of competence to the society and companies that will be needed in the field 10 years from now', Varis notes.
In the new model, representatives of funding bodies and stakeholders will be included in the steering group, which enables creating a natural connection between researchers, students and stakeholders. The aim is to organise annual seminars in which students present their work to stakeholders and funders.'
'We work very closely to the stakeholders and partners, such as the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and other public and private sector agencies involved in the Finnish Water Forum. With the cooperation, we bring competence and ideas also to smaller companies.'
The stakeholders and their needs are carefully listened to. The aim is to strengthen competence in water engineering in Finland even though the research is focused on a global aspect.
'I consider it important that we are not merely educating scientifically qualified doctors and masters of science in technology, but further develop our strong ties to the practice. This allows us to ensure that those graduating from our department will fare extremely well in finding employment and generating new jobs also in the future.'
Digitalisation and modelling data
Water research, an inherently multidisciplinary field, connects a number of Aalto University's focus areas by combining different fields of technology as well as economics. Teaching will also include collaboration with the School of Arts, Design and Architecture.
The research theme of the pilot project will be water and development as well as global water issues. Under this theme, 6-8 more specific topics will be determined, of which those applying for the doctoral education can select a few and prepare their preliminary research proposals. The number of applicants in the doctoral education in water engineering has traditionally been high.
'Digitalisation and the modelling of data, such as geographic and hydrological information, is one of the central methodological topics in the water and environment industry. Although there is a long tradition of data modelling, the field is developing notably quickly.'
The water and development group also has plenty of experience in analysing databases. With the leadership of Professor Varis, researchers have among other things developed computational analysis based on geographic information, which has helped locating risk areas in the world. The basic elements of sustainable development – economy, social capacity and the environment – have been combined with indicators of water stress, risks for natural disasters and governance capacity.
Larger funding entities with a programmatic approach
Each year during the application rounds, university researchers and doctoral candidates send an immense amount of small applications to funding bodies.
'It would make sense for everyone if we could compile larger entities for major funders. This would offer funding bodies with a clearer idea of the research as well as provide the research with volume and sustainability. A programmatic approach would enable developing such larger entities', Varis considers.
The process of planning funding models is still ongoing, but the idea is to create a product including a clear number of doctoral dissertations and master’s theses as well as a vantage point for funding bodies in the steering group.
The aim is to launch the pilot in early 2017.
'We are curious to see if this will work. In that sense, this is a genuine pilot.'
Professor Olli Varis, [email protected]