University-level Education in Support of Sustainable Mining: A Case Study from Columbia University and UNDP Guinea

by Lynnette Widder (presenting author)1, Thomas Pacioni (presenting author)2

1: Columbia University, United States of America; 2: Consultant, Houston, TX, United States of America


Although the benefits of university research to policy makers are well established, less attention has been given to the role that academic coursework can play. A project developed through Columbia University’s Sustainability Management MS program by Dr. Lynnette Widder and Technical Adviser Thomas Pacioni demonstrates how collaboration between an advanced degree teaching curriculum and an external partner active in sustainable development – a complex and politically fraught area – can offer an important complement to work done by traditional researchers and consultants.

The spring, 2018 semester-long collaboration with UNDP-Guinea identified practical challenges and potentials for sustainable mining practices at a time when Guinea’s bauxite-alumina industry is radically expanding its mining and refining capacity. Supported by routine and purposeful interaction with UNDP-Guinea’s Ousmane Bocoum, the team produced a thorough multi-disciplinary literature review, interviewed industry experts, assembled relevant case studies, and created pragmatic recommendations for a shared use approach that helped inspire meaningful private sector initiatives almost immediately. Because both the process and deliverables balanced student learning with partner needs, students and faculty retained full academic freedom to conceptualize project scope and to reframe questions as warranted by iterative research results.

The team’s independent position meant access to subject-matter experts who might otherwise have treated their knowledge as proprietary, including international trade organizations, industry representatives, finance and science consultants, development aid organizations, and researchers from other universities. Consequently, Guinea’s bauxite-aluminum industry representatives and regulators could consider its outcomes without concerns about conflicting agendas. Subsequently, Widder and Pacioni transformed the academic work into an expert presentation to Guinea’s private and public mining sector stakeholders, helping to reinforce UNDP’s sustainable mining efforts. Ultimately, this framework achieved deep student engagement and broad-based industry actions.