April 20, 2004
Stanford launches Institute for the Environment to promote creative solutions for a sustainable world
By Mark Shwartz
Global climate change, species extinction, dwindling energy supplies. To some, the environmental challenges facing the planet seem insurmountable. But according to researchers at Stanford University, creative solutions can -- and must -- be found if we are to have a sustainable future.
To assure that Stanford is in the forefront of that effort, university officials this month formally launched the Stanford Institute for the Environment (SIE) -- an independent, interdisciplinary center that will serve as the hub for all environmental research and education on campus.
"Some of our most daunting challenges are environmental ones," Stanford President John Hennessy said at the April 15 meeting of the Academic Council. "Today, over one billion people lack access to clean drinking water, and over two billion lack access to suitable sewage treatment systems. At the same time, we are literally changing the face of the planet. Human activities are driving the extinction of species at faster rates than we have ever seen. The world population is expected to grow by several billion people over the next half century, and the energy demands are likely to grow even faster."
Hennessy pointed out that the university has many prominent environmental scholars addressing these issues from a wide range of disciplines, including biology, Earth sciences, engineering, economics and law.
He also noted that, while Stanford has established several interdisciplinary environmental research programs in recent years, "what we have not had was a broad infrastructure designed to support and encourage the growth and interplay of these programs." He said that SIE "will help us consolidate and enhance the university's many existing environmental programs and attract scholars doing cutting-edge research in these areas."
To emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of SIE, Hennessy introduced the institute's new directors: Jeffrey Koseff of the School of Engineering and Barton H. "Buzz" Thompson of the School of Law.
"The institute will be an incubator for innovative, transformative, interdisciplinary research," said Koseff, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. "We will do this through an Interdisciplinary Research Seed Funding program, through the development of new outside research funding opportunities and through the development of new core and shared facilities."
He noted that, last February, Hennessy committed $1.5 million in seed money to fund interdisciplinary environmental research projects over the next three years. Faculty interest in the grant program has been extremely high, Koseff said, noting that SIE has received 39 proposals from 87 faculty members representing 29 university departments -- including classics, music, pediatrics, chemistry and geophysics. "Thirteen of the 39 proposals were selected for full development, and our SIE Committee on Research is in the midst of the very difficult process of making the final selections," he added.
Training and educating the next generation of environmental leaders is another goal of the institute, Koseff said, noting that SIE will sponsor efforts to develop courses that blend environmental science, technology and policy. "We have initiated conversations with the School of Medicine to explore educational options that examine the strong interface between human health and the environment, and with the Graduate School of Business to develop interdisciplinary case studies that focus on the relationship between business and the environment," he explained.
Koseff noted that SIE is actively working with the university administration to find a place to house the new institute in the next few years. "We envision that this building will be the home to existing and new environmental centers and programs, over 40 faculty members, interdisciplinary research labs and teaching facilities, and 200 graduate students," he said.
Faculty and collaboration
Attracting new faculty is another priority, added Thompson, vice dean of the School of Law and the Robert E. Paradise Professor of Natural Resources Law. He noted that SIE has received funding for one senior faculty billet and, so far, 58 people from around the world have applied for the position -- including applicants from top universities such as Harvard, the University of California-Berkeley and Duke. A final decision is expected by December.
"We are attracting people who already are at excellent institutions but who see that what we are doing at Stanford is something which is leading them to want to come here," Thompson said.
Another vital aspect of the institute's mission, he added, is to establish active collaborations with public and private leaders and with the community at large. "If we're going to help solve the environmental and sustainability problems of this and future generations, we must not only create knowledge here at Stanford, but we also must make sure that governmental and private leaders are aware of and understand how to use that knowledge," Thompson explained.
Unfortunately, he said, many important decision-makers are located on the East Coast, especially in Washington, D.C., "and since we can't move Stanford -- nor do we want to move Stanford -- to the East Coast, what we can do is bring them here ... through fellowships, visitor programs, conferences and the imaginative use of digital technology."
Thompson said the institute also will encourage an ongoing dialogue with communities in the San Francisco Bay Area and throughout California through monthly forums on timely issues that will be open to the public and also made available on the web and through radio broadcasts.
The importance of disseminating Stanford's environmental expertise to the public and partnering with private and governmental leaders cannot be overstated, said Pamela Matson, dean of the School of Earth Sciences and one of the principal founders of SIE. It is the university's role and responsibility to "harness our knowledge and our skills across the sciences, the humanities, engineering and the policy areas on campus to help solve some of the greatest societal problems of the century," she said.
"This is an enormous undertaking, but if we are to learn how to live on this planet in an environmentally sustainable way, if we are to leave something to be proud of for our children's children's children, we must begin," Hennessy concluded. "I believe that the Stanford Institute for the Environment is uniquely positioned to lead the way and to make a difference in this worthwhile effort."
A photo of the new directors of the Stanford Institute for the Environment is available at http://newsphotos.stanford.edu (slug: "EI Directors, EI Koseff and Enviro Init Leaders").