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Stanford research, teaching on environment breaks old boundaries
STANFORD -- Leaping the fences between academic departments, Stanford faculty are forming unusual partnerships to attack the world's environmental problems.
Biologists, economists, lawyers and engineers are exchanging ideas, teaching together and even conducting research together. The resulting synthesis may be greater than the sum of its parts, participants said.
"We're doing our best to put science and public policy together," said Institute for International Studies Director Walter Falcon, one of the leaders of the effort. "Science without public policy can be irrelevant. Public policy without good science underneath is likely to be dangerous."
The centerpiece of Stanford's undergraduate environmental program is its new Earth Systems major, which received final Faculty Senate approval this year (see related story). Though housed in the School of Earth Sciences, the new major is designed and directed by biologist Jonathan Roughgarden and draws on faculty from all over the university, from natural scientists to economists to engineers.
"The Earth Systems program is a major step forward that's pretty unique in the country," said climatologist Stephen Schneider, who joins Stanford's permanent faculty this fall. Schneider is coming to Stanford from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in part because of the new program.
Most programs at other universities are based in a particular discipline and tend to provide depth at the expense of breadth, he said. Stanford's program trains students to be interdisciplinarians - an underrepresented and important role, in Schneider's view.
Outside Earth Systems, students can find strong teaching programs with an environmental emphasis in traditional disciplines like biology, economics and earth sciences. In addition, such less obvious fields as civil engineering, law and even business include courses or accredited degree programs in the environmental field.
Like its teaching programs, Stanford's environmental research shows a strong interdisciplinary bent (see related story). Several forums provide meeting places where economists, scientists, engineers and other researchers from within and outside the university can exchange ideas.
"I think it's fair to say that Stanford is unique in the extent to which it has brought about useful interactions between different disciplines on the environmental front," said economist Larry Goulder. "Partly, that just helps researchers understand what people outside their specialty do. That gives you a better sense of where you should focus your own research investigations. But partly, it encourages some genuinely interdisciplinary research."
The largest and most vigorous interdisciplinary meeting place on campus is the Environmental Policy Forum, organized by the Institute for International Studies. The forum, now in its second year, brings Stanford researchers and outside experts together once a week for seminars and discussion on environmental science and policy.
Cooperative research projects don't develop without this type of discussion among researchers in different disciplines, participants said.
"You don't just go out and think of an idea and convince others in the university to join you. Instead, projects tend to develop out of joint interests that develop over time," said law Professor Barton Thompson, who is himself involved in an interdisciplinary research project on water use in the U.S. West.
Added biologist Marcus Feldman: "The genius of this place is that a sufficient number of very good people within departments are interested in interdisciplinary collaborations. When that happens, the university as a whole can't help but get interested."
Feldman is director of Stanford's Morrison Institute for Population and Resource Studies. Since 1985, the institute has held seminars on environmental issues that attract researchers from both natural and social sciences, as well as the medical school, he said. Besides the seminars, the Morrison Institute sponsors interdisciplinary research on population-related issues by Stanford faculty and, especially, graduate students.
Despite these interdisciplinary successes, many faculty feel that the university's departmental structure discourages such collaborations, especially among young faculty.
Since young faculty get tenure and promotion through their home department, they are under pressure to work within that department, these critics said. Research that bridges between economics and ecology, for example, may be undervalued by both departments because it belongs squarely with neither. As a result, progress in interdisciplinary problem solving comes more slowly than it might, they said.
"The question is, can you support the best people doing interdisciplinary work, or do they have to shelve problem solving for 10 years while they get tenure?" asked Schneider, one of the most outspoken advocates of a new way of evaluating interdisciplinary faculty members. "That is the toughest issue, in my opinion. Until we solve it, how can we get people in the most productive phase of their careers to work full bore on problem solving? That's a serious obstacle in universities."
The university can encourage interdisciplinary work by allowing programs to hire and tenure faculty directly, instead of through a department, biologist Peter Vitousek suggested.
Some others are not convinced that the university needs to make major changes in the way it evaluates interdisciplinary work.
"I bet that hard, innovative work would still be claimed by some discipline," said ecologist Roughgarden, "and we really do need to guard against people doing shallow work in multiple disciplines, because that's not going to help the environment."
Schneider agreed that interdisciplinary faculty need to be evaluated according to rigorous criteria.
"The single bottom line," he said, "is that whoever you get had better be damn good. While we can debate the criteria for judging quality, there ought to be no debate that whoever we get is at the top of the list."
Teaching programs also may require some adjustment, some say. So far, faculty teach Earth Systems courses in addition to their normal teaching loads, except where they've been able to cross-list Earth Systems courses with their own departments. Earth Systems faculty also take on an extra load of student advisees.
This faculty overload can't be sustained indefinitely, said Roughgarden. Some faculty billets need to be raised to support Earth Systems and relieve the pressure, he said.
Roughgarden said he hopes the program can eventually be fully funded by endowments, much as the Human Biology program is now. He'd also like to have money for speakers from outside the university and, eventually, a graduate program in Earth Systems.
He also pointed to the need for new faculty, particularly in underrepresented specialties like oceanography and atmospheric science, to fill gaps in Stanford's expertise. However, in the current funding climate, that may be difficult.
"The problem is, here's a university that's actively downsizing," said Gary Ernst, dean of earth sciences and one of the Earth Systems program's prime movers. "This is not the best time to be talking about new faculty. Somehow, we have to get by with what we have."
Finally, Schneider stressed that Stanford needs to emphasize another component to achieve an outstanding interdisciplinary environmental program: outreach.
"You can't deal with problems in the cloister of academe alone. The world can't wait for that," he said. Environmental problem-solvers need to take their findings to government, the press, interest groups and the public, he said, and the university needs to count that as an important part of those faculty members' academic work.
"Outreach should be a measure of quality for an interdisciplinarian," Schneider said. "It should be a kiss of death for an interdisciplinarian not to do that."
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