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Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology staff attend a sustainability networking session.  Some people are standing around a table talking and others are looking at some posters.

The Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology (KIR) has recently supported every single one of its research laboratories to apply for a LEAF award. This is a huge achievement, and so we spoke to Dr Katie Roberts, Dr Fränze Progatzky, and Emma Carter-Biggs about the process. 

Q: How big a role do labs play as producers of pollution at the moment?

 A: Labs consume 5-10 times more energy per square foot than commercial office buildings, requiring a huge amount of electricity, water and single-use plastics. They also produce a lot of waste; biomedical, medical and agricultural research accounts for 2% of plastic waste worldwide. A lot of this is inevitable - science would grind to a halt if we couldn't power our fume cabinets and flow cytometers, so labs will always be resource-hungry spaces. There are, however, lots of opportunities to minimise resource use and waste, being kinder to the environment without impacting the quality of science.

Q: Can you tell us about the Kennedy’s plans for LEAF certification?

A: The Kennedy Institute achieved a Beyond Gold Award from the NUS Green Impact scheme in 2020. In 2023, two of our labs held a LEAF award, demonstrating their commitment to sustainability. In Spring 2024, we considered that the KIR could do more to engage researchers with sustainable practices and to reduce the environmental impact of our labs. We set the goal of all research labs to apply for a LEAF award by the deadline of 17 May. Incredibly, as an institute, we achieved this. Around the same time, major funders published the Concordat for the Environmental Sustainability of Research and Innovation Practice. Relatedly, the Wellcome Trust is expecting a minimum level of accreditation, such as LEAF Bronze or a My Green Lab Award, by end of 2025, and CRUK is expecting a Silver level of accreditation, for LEAF or My Green Lab, for funding applicants after Jan 2026. Going forward, we will build on the Kennedy Institute's 100% LEAF submission rate, and our engaged group of Sustainability Champions, to ensure we meet funders' sustainability requirements and remain competitive for funding while doing more for the environment.

Q: What do people need to do in practice to get a LEAF award?

A: LEAF is awarded at the level of the individual lab. Bronze, Silver and Gold LEAF awards are associated with sets of 16 questions which must be answered by individual research labs. Gold and Silver require a higher level of sustainability commitment than Bronze. The questions are designed to make labs think about and improve their sustainable practices. For example, the first question for the Silver award says "The lab has assessed its use of consumables and implemented realistic measures to reduce use. These efforts should target single-use plastics where feasible." The lab would have to think about how they can reduce single-use plastics, possibly implement something new, and provide an answer. After submission, each lab audits, and is audited by, another lab, allowing claims to be validated with evidence. If all goes well, they are granted a LEAF award.

Q: Has it been challenging to coordinate?

A: Going from two LEAF signups to 27 within 3 months was always going to be a challenge, but this wouldn't have been possible without the enthusiasm of the Sustainability Champions! To explain a little more - back in March we held an engagement event to get labs on board with LEAF. As part of this, we asked for a representative from each lab to take LEAF forward. We wrote LEAF model answers to help demystify the process, with some content completed at the institute-level and bullet points to help applicants think of lab-level content. We created a Sustainability Champions group on Microsoft Teams, and set up a monthly Sustainability Club. These are well-attended and people have so many ideas to improve sustainable practices. It seems like a lot of people care about sustainability - we just needed a little coordination to achieve this major LEAF goal together. There has been a fair amount of work behind the scenes, but this goal would have fallen flat if people didn't care.

Q: What advice would you give to others thinking of signing up? 

 A: Just do it! Going through a LEAF self-assessment can be rewarding and can lead to more efficient, and cheaper, lab running costs, in addition to helping the environment. Plus, you might learn from other labs and build connections and even new networks. Plus, this kind of accreditation is becoming more heavily required by funders, so it's a huge benefit to get ahead of the game before funding applications.