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Collaborate, Please!

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Here's a NY Times article on coproporate support of academics to address the problem of global warming across discplinary lines.  I have many responses to this.  First, of course it is a good thing and we should be working more and more across disciplinary lines to help solve problems that are too complex for the expertise of any one discipline.  Second, where are the humanists in this?   Except for "ethics," you would think these are problems created by science for scientists.  Duh.  The U.S. has 4% of the earth's population and uses 25% of the earth's resources and contributes 25% of the C02 and other gasses that are thought to be the main contributors to global warming.  We're resource hogs.   That's a human, political, psychological, ethical, social issue, about privilege and entitlement and disregard for "others."  That's the terrain of political theory and a little historical perspective wouldn't help either.   Third, I hate the snotty title.  If crossdisciplinary collaboration is so darn easy for corporations, why are they turning to academics?   It's not like corporations are any better at working across their own R and D departments, across companies, across boards, or even across regulatory agencies.   One reason corporations are giving big bucks to academics is (surprise!) we do the research better and more collaboratively than they do.   So why the snide NY Times headline?  Lots of other issues here too but those are the ones that strike me and, having said that, I still wish that academics did more, not less, to collaborate and try to address some of the major issues of our times.  Leave it to business . . . and it isn't going to happen.  Period. 
 
December 25, 2007

A Threat So Big, Academics Try Collaboration

It is a basic tenet ofuniversity research: Economists conduct joint studies, chemists joinforces in the laboratory, political scientists share ideas about othercultures ? but rarely do the researchers cross disciplinary lines.

The political landscape of academia, combined with the fight forgrant money, has always fostered competition far more thancollaboration.

But the threat of global warming may just change all that.

Take what?s happening at the Rochester Institute of Technology. InSeptember the school established the Golisano Institute forSustainability, aimed at getting students and professors from differentdisciplines to collaborate in studying the environmental ramificationsof production and consumption.

?The academic tradition is to let one discipline dominate newprograms,? said Nabil Nasr, the institute?s director. ?But the problemof sustainability cuts across economics, social elements, engineering,everything. It simply cannot be solved by one discipline, or even bycoupling two disciplines.?

Neil Hawkins, Dow Chemical?svice president for sustainability, sees it that way, too. Thus, Dow isgiving $10 million, spread over five years, to the University ofCalifornia, Berkeley, to set up a sustainability center.

?Berkeley has one of the strongest chemical engineering schools inthe world, but it will be the M.B.A.?s who understand areas likemicrofinance solutions to drinking water problems,? Mr. Hawkins said.

That realization is spreading throughout academia. So moreuniversities are setting up stand-alone centers that offer neutralground on which engineering students can work on alternative fuelswhile business students calculate the economics of those fuels andpolitical science majors figure how to make the fuels palatable togovernments in both developing nations and America?s states.

?We give professors a chance to step beyond their usual areas ofexpertise, and we give students exposure to the worlds of science andbusiness,? said Daniel C. Esty, director of the year-old YaleCenter for Business and the Environment, a joint effort between theSchool of Management and the School of Forestry and EnvironmentalStudies.

Similar setups are getting easier to find. Last year, the University of Tennessee consolidated all of its environmental research programs under a new Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment. Arizona State University did the same in 2004, when it inaugurated its Global Institute of Sustainability.

The Arizona institute reports directly to the university presidentand is run by Jonathan Fink, who is also the university?ssustainability officer.

?We want all the departments to contribute without thinking they ownthe initiative themselves,? Mr. Fink said. Already, experts inbiogeochemistry ? the study of the scientific underpinnings of earth?sorigins and existing biosystems ? are working with social scientists tostudy the impact of rapid urbanization on plants and animals.

It is impossible to quantify the growth of stand-alone centers.There is no naming convention ? some are sustainability centers, someare environmental institutes and some are global warming initiatives.And many do not stand alone at all, but are neatly tucked inside anexisting school.

For example, in 2003 the University of PittsburghSchool of Engineering dedicated the Mascaro Sustainability Initiative,which studies green construction and sustainable water use.

Nor do the environmentally themed names necessarily convey anenviro-centric agenda. Many sustainability centers ? the Kenan-FlaglerCenter for Sustainable Enterprise at the University of North Carolinais a good example ? address global cultures, business ethics andcorporate social responsibility along with environmental issues.

The Aspen Institute?s Center for Business Education compiled a listof more than 600 academic centers that, at first blush, sound as ifthey would be stand-alone environmental facilities. Rich Leimsider, itsdirector, figures only a handful really are.

?We are seeing more centers framed as sustainability, but they maynot be qualitatively different from the ethics, innovation orglobalization centers of 15 years ago,? he said. ?Universities realizethat you can discuss sustainability with a C.E.O. and not get laughedout of the room.?

But Mr. Leimsider said he does see more stand-alone centers thatare devoted primarily to analyzing environmental problems, influencingenvironmental policy and preparing students to think collaborativelywhen they try to solve those problems outside the academic world.

Many of the centers have one foot set squarely outside the ivorytower. Mr. Esty said the Yale center was developing an ?eco-servicesclinic? that would help companies address various environmental issues.Duke?s Corporate Sustainability Initiative, which is a joint venture ofits earth sciences, business and environmental policy schools, is alsoa founding member of the Chicago Sustainable Business Alliance. Itsfaculty and students have already developed a small wind turbine forprivate use, and have helped local businesses reduce their carbonfootprints.

Nor does the money for the centers necessarily come from universitycoffers. Often, it comes from individuals who are passionate about theenvironment.

More than 10 years ago, Frederick A. and Barbara M. Erb gave $5 million to the University of Michigan to found the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise. They have given an additional $15 million since.

Thomas P. Lyon, the institute?s director,said much of the money goes to defray third-year costs for graduatestudents who pursue a dual degree in business and natural sciences. Butthe institute is now talking to venture capitalists about teachingstudents to invest in green technologies, and is setting up projectsfor students in China and elsewhere. It also gives small researchgrants to professors who affiliate with the institute; most recently,it awarded money for a study of botanical gardens.

?We provide a community where students and professors can discuss research with different disciplines,? Mr. Lyon said.

Similarly, Julie A. Wrigley, who has a home in Arizona, provided$15 million for Arizona State?s institute, and this year gave anadditional $10 million to create a degree-granting School ofSustainability within the institute.

The vast majority of the money for the Golisano Institute in Rochester came from B. Thomas Golisano, the founder of Paychex and one of the underwriters of the Clinton Global Initiative.

Mr. Golisano, who donated $10 million, said he expected theinstitute to ?produce the first generation of professionals with thevision and know-how to deliver on the promise of sustainability.?Indeed, Mr. Nasr said the institute already offers courses onsustainability to all freshman and is asking students to submit ideasfor projects.

Sometimes, government chips in. Mr. Fink notes that Phoenix is ?theposter child? for the so-called urban heat island effect ? thephenomenon in which big cities absorb heat during the day and releaseit at night, causing temperatures to rise. So his institute has amassedfunds from the Environmental Protection Agency,the State of Arizona and some local businesses for a project to see ifcertain construction materials can alleviate the problem.

Companies are getting into the financing act as well. Unliketraditional partnerships between business and academia, in whichcompanies that provide funds have the right to commercialize anybreakthroughs, most of these funds come with no strings attached.

Several years ago Enterprise Rent-a-Car donated $10 million to theDonald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis for research ongrowing crops for food. This year it gave $25 million to create theEnterprise Institute in conjunction with Danforth, to do research intobiobased fuels.

?Danforth understands cellulosic research, so they are bestpositioned to figure out how to make fuel from soy and corn,? saidPatrick T. Farrell, vice president for corporate responsibility atEnterprise.

Four companies ? ExxonMobil, General Electric, Schlumberger and Toyota ? have anted up for the Stanford University Global Climate and Energy Project, which explores new energy technologies. The Shell Oil Foundation has been financing Rice University?s Shell Center for Sustainability since 2002. Wal-Mart has promised money for an Applied Sustainability Center at the University of Arkansas.

Berkeley, meanwhile, is using Dow?s gift to set up a SustainableProducts and Solutions Program within its existing Center forResponsible Business. That is in the Haas Business School, but KellieA. McElhaney, the center?s director, insists the program will draw onBerkeley?s chemists, biologists, financial analysts, policyspecialists, even lawyers.

The program is now taking applications for grants from Berkeleystudents and professors who want to conduct collaborative research intotopics like providing clean drinking water or more efficient fuels. AndMs. McElhaney said other companies have expressed willingness to kickin funds.

?Commercialization takes forever if the chemical engineers and thebusiness types do not coordinate,? she said. ?So think how much easierit will be for chemistry graduates to work inside a company if theyalready know how to interact with the business side.?

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