Committee seeks feedback on ways to bridge sustainability research, education and impact

A committee is exploring ways of bridging sustainability efforts on campus and creating new mechanisms for dispersed groups to work together on critical issues like climate change, biodiversity and sustainable development. They are seeking feedback in a series of town halls.

As Stanford moves forward with a new commitment to Sustainability under the Long-Range Vision, the university is also looking at new ways of organizing and connecting the many people working on sustainability issues broadly distributed across the campus.

In the past decades, collaborative research groups and educational programs housed in buildings like the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building (known as Y2E2), have led to novel ideas and innovations – for example, improved green energy technologies, better understanding of the rate and severity of climate change, policy ideas for how governments can take action and strategies for putting a value on preserving nature.

Now, a committee led by Arun Majumdar, professor of mechanical engineering, and Noah Diffenbaugh, professor of Earth system science, has been tasked by Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne with investigating how the university can build on existing strengths and allow faculty and students from across the disciplines to realize their maximum collective potential to address climate and sustainability challenges over the coming decades.

“The world is different than it was 15 or 20 years ago,” said Diffenbaugh, who is also the Kara J Foundation Professor and Kimmelman Family Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment. “In part due to work at Stanford, people now recognize climate change as a challenge that is already impacting us – and we also have new technologies and potential solutions. This committee is being asked to examine whether there are new ways of organizing and working together to take advantage of what we’ve developed, and accelerate solutions for providing resources like food, water and energy while simultaneously minimizing impacts from climate change, deforestation and air and water pollution.”

Seeking diverse input

The committee includes faculty from across all seven schools, and from the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the Precourt Institute for Energy, the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

“Solutions aren’t going to come just from within departments traditionally associated with sustainability,” said Majumdar, who is also the Jay Precourt Professor and co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy. “We need input from science, engineering, business, law, economics and others to create holistic solutions and implement these solutions that come out of Stanford research.”

Beyond contributions from the diverse committee members, the group is seeking feedback from faculty, students and staff at a series of Campus Forums beginning Jan. 31 (see sidebar or webpage for dates and locations).

Diffenbaugh and Majumdar stress that the committee isn’t setting priorities for the Sustainability Initiative. Instead, their work will help the initiative achieve its goals of educating students and creating and translating solutions for the world. They are also not making specific recommendations for re-organizing units on campus. Instead, the committee is addressing the question of what should be the overall organizational architecture and proposing a set of structural options that would build on Stanford’s strengths, identify new opportunities and enable the university to maximize and accelerate its impact to address the defining challenge of the 21st century. The president has requested a report from the committee by the end of winter quarter.

New research directions

Where research over the previous decades focused on innovation and ideas, core research areas within the Sustainability Initiative seek to form partnerships that will scale those solutions for the world – and it’s these new directions that any organizational structure will need to support.

One example is Zero Emissions Energy Solutions (ZEES) led by Sally Benson, professor of energy resources engineering, which aims to partner with governments or other entities like businesses and university campuses to develop pathways to zero emissions.

“Some organizations that are really committed want to get to zero emissions but don’t know how to do it,” said Benson, who is also co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy with Majumdar.

“At Stanford, we’ve got models, we have a deep understanding of technology, we really know about cost and we’re good at data science,” said Benson. “So we can pull together the kind of information these organizations would need to figure out the magnitude of the challenge and we’re good at understanding the fastest, cheapest and most sustainable pathway.”

ZEES will leverage these strengths in partnerships to help organizations achieve their goals in a way that makes sense for them, Benson said. “There isn’t a single path everyone can use.”

Beyond just technology, Margaret Levi, a professor of political science, said the humanities and social sciences have a critical role to play in bringing about climate solutions.

“There’ s an imperative to reach beyond science because the big issue right now is getting the public and governments to understand the need to change and support policies that will enhance those changes,” said Levi, who is director of Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS).

Levi said the social scientists can frame questions of how to persuade people to make behavioral changes and clarify what the levers of political and societal change are. They also know how to think through the incentives, disincentives and policies that will or will not be effective in a given political environment.

“Stanford has the Woods Institute and CASBS, among others, where many of these important conversations have been taking place, but we could do far more to reduce boundaries between the disciplines and support projects representing diverse perspectives,” she said.

New organizational structures that enhance those conversations and expand opportunities to work together will speed the kinds of changes needed to create a sustainable future for our people and the planet, said Diffenbaugh and Majumdar.

FAQ on the committee’s work

Q: Will this committee deliver predetermined recommendations?
A: No, the committee is charged with recommending options, and evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Q: Will this committee make recommendations about specific units?
A: No, strategic planning and implementation will have to commence after this committee’s work is complete.

Q: Will this committee “re-hash” the work of the Design Team?
A: No, the Design Team leaders continue to work on programming for the Sustainability Initiative.

Q: How will this committee coordinate with the Design Team?
A: The Design Team co-leads (Lynn Hildemann, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Scott Fendorf, professor of Earth system science) are on the committee.

In addition to the town halls, faculty, staff and students can provide feedback by sending an email to [email protected].

Diffenbaugh is also an affiliate of the Precourt Institute for Energy. Majumdar is also a professor in the Photon Science Directorate at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. Benson is also an affiliate of the Woods Institute. Levi is also a senior fellow of the Woods Institute, and a member of Stanford Bio-X and of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute. Hildemann is also a member of Stanford Bio-X and the Maternal & Child Health Research Institute and is an affiliate of the Woods Institute. Fendorf is also the Terry Huffington Professor, a Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute and a member of the Maternal & Child Health Research Institute.