09 Dec 2021

Student Perspectives on the SETAC Europe Council: An Inside/Outside Story

Markus Schmitz, Member of the SETAC Europe Student Advisory Council (SAC) and SETAC Europe Council Member (SEC); Andreas Eriksson, Chair of SAC and SEC Member; Mafalda Castro, Immediate Past Chair of SAC; Michelle Bloor, SETAC Europe President; and Thomas-Benjamin Seiler, Immediate Past President of SEC

During the SETAC Europe Extraordinary Annual General Assembly on 14 September, members voted unanimously to amend the SETAC Europe VZW articles of association to create an extra seat on the SEC for a student representative with full voting rights. Markus Schmitz, a Ph.D. student at Goethe-Universität and a SAC member, was subsequently elected into this position for a two-year term. As the student representative, Schmitz joined fellow Ph.D. student Andreas Eriksson, University of Helsinki, on the council. Eriksson is now a full member of SETAC, and consequently, he was able to stand for election in May 2020 as an academic representative on the council.

The idea of introducing a student representative with voting rights onto the SEC was considered when the SAC was initially established. Back then, a few enthusiastic SETAC Europe students under the lead of Mirco Bundschuh set out to strengthen the role of students within SETAC Europe. The matter was taken seriously, developed, refined and the legal details were finalized by the SEC under several presidents: Karel De Schamphelaere, Annegaaike Leopold and Thomas-Benjamin Seiler, respectively. While the formal proposal was submitted for a vote at the Annual General Assembly in May 2021, too few voting members attended the meeting to reach the necessary quorum, which is why the motion had to be postponed until the September 2021 Extraordinary Annual General Assembly, where two thirds of the attendees were sufficient for the motion to pass.

Figure 1: Brief organizational chart indicating the role of the SEC and its satellite committees and its relation to the SETAC World Council.

To completely understand the impact of the Extraordinary Annual General Assembly vote, it is perhaps important to understand the structure of SETAC Europe. The affairs within SETAC Europe are managed by the Executive Director and office staff with oversight from the SEC. The SEC is the decision-making body in SETAC Europe, and it is composed of a maximum of 25 voting members equally represented by government, business and academia. All satellite groups seen in Figure 1 work on different issues. SETAC Europe Regional Branches, which include the German, Italian, United Kingdom, Russian and United Arab Emirates branches, organize SETAC events for its members in a local, smaller approach. SETAC Europe Committees undertake work to support the society by executing the charges set forth by the SEC. They are responsible for different organizational aspects of the society: finances, awards and nominations, among others. Interest Groups advance scientific topics by organizing meetings, proposing seminars or special sessions during the year or at the annual meetings, and conducting other outreach and educational efforts. Lastly, the SAC predominantly advises the SEC on student matters. Students represent up to 25% of the society members and, given that the SEC is always composed of full members, the only chance for student members to influence decision-making in the SEC was via the advising role of the SAC – until now.

SETAC’s organizational heart is its tripartite, democratic foundation composed of academic, government and business members. Nevertheless, there is a fourth group, students and young professionals, who do not fit the characteristics of these three main groups despite by default often belonging to “academia.” However, students commonly experience rapidly changing life situations (about every two to three years) and actively look for networks, future friends and colleagues, and opportunities to build their future career, rather than consolidating and expanding an existing and well-proven status-quo. Simultaneously, by doing so (i.e., building future networks from scratch), students form the future generation of SETAC governance. Consequently, students should have a right to actively contribute to the democratic process of constantly shaping and moving SETAC towards a sustainable future by casting a vote. Considering students as an active and demanding group was highlighted during SETAC’s 2021 business model review process, where it was illustrated that the upcoming “Generation Z” (1.8 billion people, 10–24 years old; the largest generational cohort in history) will be entering a professional career and adding to the young and senior “millennials” professional market (25–39 years old, 1.7b)1. As we move forward, there will be more and more students eager to engage and actively participate in the SETAC activities as society members. We already experience this with the increasing number of associate members attending the SAC meetings.

We asked Mafalda Castro, Andreas Eriksson and Markus Schmitz a series of questions to better understand why having a voting student representative on the SEC is so important. Castro is the immediate past chair of the SAC and during her two-year term, she attended SEC meetings as a guest member. Eriksson is the current chair of the SAC. Last year, Schmitz was elected onto the SEC as a fully voting academic representative, which was only possible as he is a full member of the society. He is the aspiring vice chair of the SAC and became the first student representative with voting rights to be elected onto the SEC.

Q. Can you share some of your motivations for working so hard to bring the creation of a student voting position in the SEC? Castro: Many times, I wish I had the power to vote, not because it would change the SEC’s decision but because I wanted to solidify my support in a motion or decision made by the SEC. Eriksson: The primary advantage of having student representation with voting rights at the SEC is that it can provide direct influence on long-term planning. A Ph.D. student’s lifetime is often not more than four years, which means a student’s view on SETAC, as a whole, will carry over into the future career (both short and long term). By taking the consideration of students into account, it will contribute to a long-lasting relationship. Schmitz: As a student representative, who does not per se compete with any other of the tripartite parties of SETAC, one can influence the way forward of SETAC from the perspective of the group who will experience the consequences, and in the best case, profit from the decisions the most in the long run. Q. How does it feel like to be new to the SEC and to participate in the decision making process?  Castro: I don’t have anything to say here because I never voted. Eriksson: At the start of my term in the SEC, there were a lot of new concepts and terms to take in and understand. However, thanks to good mentorship and a crash course in how the SEC operates, I quickly got the hang of the ropes, so to say. Without my previous experiences from the SAC, it would have been even harder. Being elected as the first student to the SEC, an honor in itself, has provided the students of SETAC with a direct link to the SEC. Schmitz: At the SETAC business model review task force to develop the strategic planning goals, I already learned lots about the internal, governmental structure of SETAC and SETAC Europe as well. Even though the motion to create a student representative position within the SEC could not be put forward during the Annual General Assembly in May 2021, I was still invited to attend the SEC meetings as a guest member until the Extraordinary Annual General Assembly. This way I could already watch and learn the most important things to know about the SEC. Q. How does it feel to actually be able to vote on a motion? Does it really make a difference? What were the first motions you voted on? Castro: As I mentioned above, I wished many, many times that I had the power to vote to solidify my support in a motion or decision made by the SEC. For me it definitely would have made a difference – for me as a person as well as for my role as a representative of student interests. Eriksson: My first vote was to approve the year plan of 2020 for SETAC Europe. In my experience, nearly every motion that is put forward to the SEC for approval is so well written and considered that I usually think, “This is a no-brainer – approve.” Schmitz: I have to look up what I voted first for… But for me it was a very different feeling to attend the first meeting as a full voting member. Before, I was happy and thankful to be invited as a guest member and curious to learn about the SEC. Nevertheless, when it came to voting on motions there was always a slight feeling of uncertainty or distress about the fact that this is the part of the meeting, where I cannot (yet) really participate (unless sharing my opinion beforehand). As a voting member, this feeling changed and is now replaced by excitement and grateful recognition that my vote counts, no matter how “easy” a vote might be (whether it’s just the acceptance of the agenda or a ratification of a committee). I also second Andreas’ comment; all motions that I attended over the year were very well written, professionally justified and only in very rare cases quite controversial. Q. Last but not least, if a student reader might be interested now, how can one become involved and engaged in SETAC committees and the SAC?  Castro, Eriksson, Schmitz: Just sign up! Raise your voice! Stand out of the silent crowd! The SAC usually circulates offers for student representatives in different committees, IGs and task forces, which offer many opportunities to get to know SETAC as an organization. If not elected, one can still be an active associated SAC member and stand up for election again the next year. And of course, volunteering at conferences is always a good and fun option to get in touch with SETAC. Schmitz: I can confirm this from my own experience; it’s even more fun because you can look around what other opportunities for engagement are there and have less “duties” as an associated member. Q. What are your plans for the future of Students of SETAC?  Castro, Eriksson, Schmitz: During our recent face-to-face meeting (half hybrid and half on-site in Landau in der Pfalz, Germany) the SAC held a workshop to identify future actions and needs to improve the involvement and situation for student members in SETAC. In fact, during these conversations the SAC identified how positively the society had changed over the past years. We agreed that SETAC really appreciates its student members and strongly supports the SAC and their actions around the globe, almost without exception. There is definitely some room for improvement with regards to the communication between the student groups of different geographic units. When planning for the 2022 virtual global YES meeting was discussed at the recent Landau meeting, “SAC history” was made – one student member from each of SETAC’s five geographic units was present. Of course, we always invite each other to conference calls, but there is no real harmonization. We thought that organizing a global SAC meeting once a year might be a good idea and would help to maintain a meaningful dialogue. It would also be a good outreach opportunity in terms of advertising SETAC to students outside of meetings.

Addressing the question “What do we want students of SETAC to be able to do in five years from now?” we identified the following action points:

  1. The SAC should further promote equity for students between different but also within single geographic units. The current grant program and low- to high-income strategy of the membership system only partly solves the issue that SETAC is not equally accessible to all students who could profit from it. This also includes outreach and better advertising of existing solutions.
  2. While SETAC North America already makes good use of the SETAC career center, we want to encourage SETAC Europe to bring employers and young professionals together, either by using this existing or any other suitable platform.
  3. The SAC would like to initiate a regular workshop and skills course educational program. We believe that such a program would:
    • Improve thinking outside the box
    • Increase SETAC visibility
    • Significantly increase SETAC’s value for student members aside from annual meetings
    • Pursue amongst others the SETAC Europe strategic goal to transform SETAC into a top address for expert opinions on environmental issues

Finally, we will initiate regular social events, online, for our student members. In doing so, students will meet more regularly than now, where we meet once or twice per year at most.

Authors’ contact information: [email protected] and [email protected]