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Skating To Where the Puck Will Be
An ambitious collaborative effort seeks to build interdisciplinary partnerships in step with federal agencies’ shifting priorities

IN LATE MAY, on day one of the inaugural, three-day workshop of the nascent UNH Sustainability Research Collaboratory, 55 faculty and staff from departments and colleges across campus, and several external partners from the region, gathered off campus to begin laying down a bold future for university-wide sustainability science research. The interdisciplinary nature of that future was manifested by those sitting around the tables as discussions began – historians, ecologists, engineers, English professors, sociologists, fisheries experts, and philosophers, to name a few.

great bay map  
www.sustainableunh.unh.edu

Although the name of the ambitious new venture is the Sustainability Research Collaboratory or SRC, the acronym could just as easily stand for “Societally Relevant Challenges,” for ultimately that is what the group is charged with tackling – eventually. Initially, however, the group’s work is to provide the virtual bricks and mortar for building a “research laboratory without walls” that, going forward, will be solid enough to keep the doors open and the lights on for people willing to make the time and take the risks inherent in breaking new ground.

Indeed, one of the very first comments following the workshop’s initial roundtable discussions concerned the support, or lack thereof, for faculty and staff committed to interdisciplinary research – an endeavor one participant termed an “awkward dance” with partners who don't necessarily get encouragement from the institutional powers that be.

  ecoline
he UNH methane "EcoLine" pipeline, which runs from the Waste Management landfill in Rochester to the Durham campus, provides up to 85 percent of campus power needs.
Photo by Lisa Nugent, UNH Photo Services.

“The SRC was designed to make sure that support was not only possible, but predictable,” stressed Thomas Kelly, UNH’s Chief Sustainability Officer and founding member of the SRC.

Moreover, noted Cameron Wake, a research associate professor at the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space (EOS) and SRC founding member, institutional support is part and parcel of the ambitious effort. The SRC was awarded $100,000 in start-up money from the UNH New Ventures Fund, and its philosophical underpinnings can be traced back to the UNH Strategic Plan as outlined by President Mark Huddleston in 2010. With respect to positioning the university for future opportunities in federal research dollars, Huddleston stressed that UNH needed to “skate to where the puck is going to be.”

The puck, it turns out, will be sitting in front of the net of societally relevant interdisciplinary research – research with a purpose, research that will help solve some of humankind’s most pressing problems. These “grand challenges” are themselves becoming institutionalized by federal agencies such as the National Academy of Sciences, which, among others, have crafted a series of clearly defined challenges that interdisciplinary research will need to address if humankind is to move towards a sustainable future.

Grand challenges range from areas of specific focus, such as an improved understanding of infectious disease and the environment or making solar energy economical, to broader topics like, for example, how science and technology can be more effectively harnessed to address sustainability goals or approaches to forecasting, observing, confining, responding, and innovating in support of sustainable development in the context of global change.

Sustainability science: where the natural and social sciences,
humanities and engineering meet

At the heart of the SRC is the notion that not only must these grand challenges be addressed in the name of a sustainable future but, from a practical standpoint, this new approach is already becoming a primary interest for federal funding agencies, especially the National Science Foundation.

“We believe that societally relevant science is going to be funded more, or putting it another way, science that we’re ‘just interested in’ will be less likely to be funded by Congress, by the government agencies,” says Jack Dibb, director of the EOS Complex Systems Research Center and a founding member of the SRC.

“Adds Wake, “Or, I’d say in a world where there will be fewer dollars for research, more is going to be provided to what we call sustainability science – socially relevant research that’s engaged with external partners and represents the integration of disciplines to study the intersection of natural and social systems.”

Both Dibb and Wake note that, historically, EOS has been very good on the natural, Earth system science side of the equation “but we have limited experience on the social side, and even less experience in integrating the two.” And that’s what the SRC means to do effectively and for the long haul – integrate the social and natural sciences with the humanities and engineering to generate common research goals and questions.

The effort will eventually broaden horizons, make the university more competitive in the realm of federally funded research, allow researchers across the board to better understand disciplines they are historically unfamiliar with and, in turn, foster true interdisciplinary collaboration.

The university’s founding entities behind the SRC are EOS (Complex Systems in particular), the Sustainability Academy, the Carsey Institute, and the Environmental Research Group.

  gardner
  Kevin Gardner
Photo courtesy of UNH Photo Services.

grimm
 

Curt Grimm
Photo courtesy of UNH Photo Services.

Interdisciplinary research has a high overhead,” notes Kevin Gardner, a professor in the Environmental Research Group and founding member of the SRC. “It takes a lot of time to build mutual understanding across disciplines and to understand different languages and methods of investigation and analysis. Our inaugural workshop represented a significant investment in the face-to-face time required to foster new interdisciplinary relationships.”

The inaugural workshop was the first step in a formal and ongoing process that will establish “researcher learning communities” comprised of university researchers and external partners and designed to foster a continuing dialogue around specific aspects of the newly defined grand challenges.

Research associate professor Curt Grimm of the Carsey Institute notes, “The researcher learning communities will not be fixed structures. Rather, they’ll represent a process whereby you bring together multi-disciplinary experiences and perspectives to explore the dynamic interplay of social, economic, and biophysical factors involved in an issue of mutual interest.”

The ultimate charge of the researcher learning communities is to craft tightly integrated, cross-disciplinary research proposals in strategic fashion and aimed at various aspects of the grand challenges defined by funding agencies. For example, the National Science Foundation has established the Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (SEES) initiative “in order to promote the research and education needed to address the challenges of creating a sustainable human future.”

SRC steering committee members emphasize that this is no “fringe opportunity.” The agency has requested funds to expand the SEES effort by $337 million, making the total 2012 budget almost $1 billion for SEES activities.

Says Dibb, “The NSF has a very prominent commitment to addressing these grand challenges. They really want to make it happen and the SEES program is their driving mechanism. They’ve got to figure out how to review these broader, new interdisciplinary proposals, but they want science to go this direction.”

Scaling grand challenges down to a “place-based” case study
The whole mix of grand challenges, sustainability science, and interdisciplinary research makes for uncharted waters. So in order to give the initial SRC researcher learning community a tangible place to get its bearings, a case study entitled “Gulf of Maine and Grand Challenges: Incubating Sustainability Science Research at UNH” was launched during the three-day workshop.

great bay map  
A manuscript map of Piscataqua drawn in 1700 by Jonathan Bridger, Surveyor of the King's Forest, during the Indian Wars. Note the sign in the swamp that says "A Large Swamp of White Pines Burnt by the Indians" in the Berwicks. Although NH and ME were separate provinces, the region had long been called "Piscataquar" for the river that bound it together.
Photo courtesy of Karen Alexander, UNH-OPAL
 

Because the Great Bay/Gulf of Maine region has been the focus of a wealth of diverse research conducted by UNH scientists and external partners over a period of decades, the interdisciplinary effort led by the initial researcher learning community won’t have to start from scratch. That said, because the research is fragmented across disciplines and specialties, one of the more immediate goals of the project will be to integrate those research efforts into a more cohesive structure.

At the end of the three-day workshop, the group agreed on a new initiative tentatively called “Sustainable Piscataqua–Sustainable Coasts,” which will provide the focus for the first year of the research learning community’s research and proposal writing on coupled human-natural systems. Notes Wake, “Sustainability science is by definition place-based. It’s not about, for example, global atmospheric chemistry, it’s about a place where people are and where they interact with that natural world.”

great bay aerial  
Aerial view of Great Bay
Photo courtesy of UNH Photo Services.
 

The historic Piscataqua region is such a place, and it is facing a whole series of stresses that, collectively, will be the particular grand challenge SRC researchers will tackle first. Sustainable food production from both the land and sea, water and air quality, land use, sustainable development practices, and emerging diseases will be considered as key research topics for proposals investigating coupled human-natural systems. Results and approaches can then be used to compare to other, similar regions of the world as the grand challenge issue is scaled up.

When the three-day workshop drew to a close, the organizers noted that people seem to be yearning for this type of experience. Says Kelly, “They’re yearning for this ability to have the time and space to discuss these kinds of critical issues in an open forum, and have that discussion be organized towards a strategic initiative that will result in large proposals being submitted to a new era in funding opportunities.”


by David Sims, Science Writer, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space. Published in Summerr 2011 issue of EOS Spheres.