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UW's College Of The Environment Plants Seeds For The Future

"CoEnv" Committed To Funding Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Although a butterfly wing's flap in Brazil may not actually cause a tornado in Texas, it would be hard to overstate the complexity underlying the systems, from the biological to the astronomical, that move our universe.

Such is the rationale behind UW's new College of the Environment (CoEnv), which aims to bring UW's abundance of expertise in environmental sciences and studies under one roof. The goal is to facilitate and encourage collaboration among academic and research units to explore the scientific and human dimensions of significant environmental challenges.

The college, which opened its doors in September 2009, encompasses seven academic departments and six research centers. CoEnv kicked off its first year by awarding seed grants to a group of projects that interim dean Dennis Hartmann describes as novel and interdisciplinary both in terms of research and in how they are communicated to the public. "Many people understand how important it is to do interdisciplinary research," says Hartmann. "We hope that by jump-starting some of these activities with private support, we'll be able to demonstrate their intellectual and practical value. We place a premium on increasing resources to provide catalytic support for these kinds of innovative projects."

With CoEnv's creation, UW joins a growing number of universities across the country with programs designed as an institutional framework for multidisciplinary research on environmental issues. "Programs focused on sustainability have seen a significant ramping up in the past decade, especially the past five years. Before, they were kind of disconnected efforts," says Paul Rowland, director of the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. "We're finding that it's ok for money to cross boundaries."

Mary Pearl, dean of the State University of New York at Stony Brook Southampton, credits the increase to both freestanding research institutions' interest in collaborating with academia and rising student interest in the environment. "It's the urgency of the issue, we're seeing ecosystems at risk," says Pearl. "Students want to prepare themselves to deal with these issues." Southampton, which opened in 2007, encompasses environmental science and policy as well as humanities, not unlike UW's CoEnv. "When you put together faculty from different disciplines who are interested in a grand challenge, wonderful things happen," says Pearl.

Despite initial controversy surrounding the restructuring of several UW colleges and departments, the idea that furthering multidisciplinary work would render the college more than the sum of its parts managed to garner support for CoEnv. "People were excited that we would attract resources to generate crosscutting initiatives," says CoEnv assistant dean Stephanie Harrington. With a gift in research funds from a private donor, CoEnv had a chance to show that it could do exactly that.

So far, a total of about $510,000 in seed grants has been awarded to four proposals from both within and outside CoEnv. Funded topics include natural history, water rights management, the debate over geoengineering, and science communication, all complex issues requiring diversity of input. "It's this whole systems approach that I think we're uniquely positioned to address," says Harrington, "social sciences and the human dimensions rather than just conservation and ecology."

Applying a holistic strategy to the study of the environment is no foreign concept to the seed grant recipients themselves, particularly UW biology professor Josh Tewksbury. "If we don't know the very basic parts of the system, all the fancy modeling in the world won't get us to where we want to go," says Tewksbury, lamenting a recent decline in the teaching and understanding of "natural history": focused attention on the non-human world. "People don't go outside. Yet our development, from childhood up to complex society, has links to interaction with natural systems. So what are the implications of that?"

To address this question, Tewksbury and collaborators are developing a three-pronged workshop series called "Natural History: From Decline to Rebirth" to be held at the Pack Forest conference center this fall. With invited speakers and panelists including writer Barry Lopez, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, REI CEO Sally Jewell, poet laureate Robert Hass, several university heads, representatives from the National Park Service and numerous environmental NGOs, scientists, writers, and reporters, the aim is to merge ideas from every field with a stake in the environment. The series is partially funded by NSF, but UW's seed grant will allow students to participate, providing them with a valuable network.

The three workshops will explore ways to renew society's interest in the outdoors, how to use education at every level to further this goal, and natural history's place in research, which Tewksbury believes is too often overlooked with the specialization of scientific fields. The series will end with a "synthesis summit," where the workshop participants will pool their insights and adapt them for briefing leaders. "This isn't an academic exercise," says Tewksbury. "It's a topic that's bigger than science, and a foundation of natural resource management. We can't manage the future of our environment unless we understand the basics of biodiversity."

This theme of integrating science and policy is also evident in the CoEnv-funded project led by public affairs professor Joe Cook, who is collaborating with members of forest resources and civil and environmental engineering departments to study the economics of water rights management in the Yakima River basin. Water is a precious resource in the Yakima basin, a major agricultural center, but population and urban growth have made it scarce. "Every year, there's just not enough water to go around; it's been overallocated," says Cook. "Too many users have been promised too much water."

Water rights management is a peculiar institution, independent of the government and run by landowners who judge water priority by seniority–-how long each irrigator's family has been using the land. When there is a drought, junior landowners must leave their land unplanted, or fallowed. If a junior farmer needs water for his crops beyond his allocation for the year, he may offer to buy or lease water rights from a senior farmer for an agreed-upon price. When governmental agencies such as the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Bureau of Reclamation want to use the basin's water for environmental projects, they too must lease rights from landowners for a fair price. But over-allocation has created a problem: "The market is thin, there's not enough people buying and selling, so no one even knows what a fair price is," says Cook. Nor is it clear whether the fact that the buyer is the government affects what the owner considers to be a fair price, or whether he is willing to lease at all.

Cook's group plans to address these questions by surveying farmers in the Yakima basin to learn what they would accept from the government or from an environmental group for use of their water. Results from the study will be used to make recommendations to policy makers and will also be published in scholarly journals. "People have a lot of opinions; our part is to understand the institutional context and let understanding guide our final decisions," he says. At the end of the study, Cook will host a UW seminar series where stakeholders from the Yakima region will speak on water scarcity due to climate change.

To Rob Wood, atmospheric sciences professor, this kind of effective communication of scientific research is essential for informing policy in the field of climate change. His group's seed grant will fund a seminar series on the topic of geoengineering: the idea that science could purposely alter the planet to counteract global warming. Many approaches have been suggested, such as counteracting the effects of CO2 by releasing sulfur aerosols into the atmosphere, but no formal geoengineering research program yet exists. Interest is growing in the scientific community; Congress has held several hearings where climate scientists have testified about the urgency and feasibility of climate intervention. Although such endeavors are possible in theory, Wood says the technology is beyond us. "The key question is whether it's time to start a research program and what it should study."

A complex question indeed: beyond the scientific and technical issues of geoengineering are a tangle of social and legal issues, including whether it is ethical to deliberately modify global climate, and if so, under what conditions.

To open a dialog among experts on these topics, Wood's team plans to launch a cross-departmental seminar series this fall addressing the science behind geoengineering, with speakers from a broad range of departments and organizations, including the UW atmospheric sciences department; Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; UW philosophy department; and UW School of Law. The series will culminate in a summit workshop, intended to broaden discussion beyond experts and bring in interested parties from the community. "We live in the environment: how it influences us, and we influence it, are critical questions," says Wood. "Our project gets the debate going beyond scientists."

Scientific outreach is also the basis of the fourth grant, awarded to Kathy Kohm, editor of Conservation magazine and based in the Department of Biology. "We're calling this ‘Conservation Conversation,'" says Kohm, whose grant will allow her to invite the scientists featured in Conservation to lecture at UW on topics related to environmental science. "We're trying to use the money to expand our magazine across platforms: print, events, and into the classroom."

Conservation magazine has been published since 2001 by the Society for Conservation Biology, a scientific nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., and has a partnership with UW's biology department to publish the magazine. "We like to focus on topics in science on the leading edge, really pushing the frontiers," says Kohm. In addition to the lectures, the magazine will use part of the seed grant to hire UW student interns. Kohm is excited about the prospect of working with CoEnv. "Part of the idea is to put UW on the map as a leader in environmental science. It's a great fit."

Sara Reardon is a graduate student in molecular biology at the University of Washington.


Top: Interim dean Dennis Hartmann sees the seed grants as a way to jump-start interdisciplinary research at UW. Photo: Daniel Kim /The Daily

Bottom: Increased student interest in natural systems is driving more universities to form interdisciplinary programs focused on environmental studies. Photo: Thomas L. Fleischner

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