New U institute to focus on the environment

Courtney Blanchard

Environmental researchers and experts hide in the nooks and crannies of the University, but a proposed environmental institute would seek to bring them together to solve some big problems.

The University sought public input Wednesday on the proposed institute, which would produce actual solutions to environmental problems by uniting scholars from different disciplines at the University to work together.

Deb Swackhamer, professor and co-director of the Water Resources Center, said the institute will make a difference.

“From an outside perspective, it looks like our whole environmental effort is less than our parts,” she said. Swackhamer also serves as co-chairwoman on the advisory board to the provost for the institute.

“Ultimately, we are looking to improve society,” she said.

The center also will offer graduate student fellowships and a postdoctorate scholars program, she said.

David Tilman, a Regents’ Professor of ecology, said the institute will utilize multidisciplinary teams of researchers and students to take advantage of different perspectives and approaches to environmental issues. For example, a project could involve researchers in agriculture, economics and law.

“We have great strength, but the strength has never been coalesced,” he said.

Tilman said the institute still is in the planning stage, but the types of problems tackled could include climate change and exotic invasive species.

A forum at the St. Paul campus’ Cargill Building Wednesday attracted dozens of professors, administrators and environmentalists.

Attendees raised concerns such as how the University can be a leader in environmental issues and how to incorporate minority faculty members and students.

One attendee stood up and said the University should be a leader by not having coal-burning plants by the river.

For Jeff Roberts, head of the chemistry department, funding was a major issue.

Roberts asked whether “new money” would be used to support the institute. He said he was concerned funding from existing departments could be moved to the new project, hurting programs that are already “undersourced.”

“The overall goals are wonderful, but not at that expense,” he said.

Swackhamer said in a previous interview that funding for the new institute will be included in University President Bob Bruininks’ biennial budget request to the Minnesota State Legislature.

Steve Polasky, professor of applied economics and co-chairman of the advisory committee, said one of the institute’s goals is to become highly competitive for national grants, “not just to shuffle around existing funding.”

Over the summer, the advisory committee talked to directors of similar institutions at Stanford, University of California at Davis and Riverside and the University of Illinois for suggestions on funding and facilitation.

Polasky said the schools suggested dedicating a building to the program and making information available to the public.

“If we’re going to go beyond just journal articles, we need to engage the public,” Polasky said. “We need to reach out.”

However, the Board of

Regents must approve the institute before anything happens. Polasky said the committee will submit the final report Sept. 14.

If approved, an interim director and 12 to 15 “founding fellows” could begin operation of the institute as early as January.

The advisory committee will have two more forums inviting public and University input: 10 to 11:30 a.m. Thursday in 402 Walter Library, and 1 to 2:30 p.m. Friday in 130 School of Medicine building on the University’s Duluth campus.