Big questions: Frontiers’ fresh look

Read the full post from the University of Minnesota Institute on Environment.

This fall, the Institute on the Environment is refreshing our popular Frontiers in the Environment series. We’ll ask some Big Questions and host solutions-focused conversations about the next wave of research and discovery.

Below is the schedule from the web site.

Frontiers in the Environment: Big Questions

Solutions-focused conversations about the next wave of research and discovery.

Wednesdays, 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST
IonE Seminar Room R380, Learning & Environmental Sciences Bldg., St. Paul
Free and open to the public; no registration required
Join us online via UMConnect

September 24 — Can We Build a More Resilient Food Distribution System?

Matteo Convertino, IonE Resident Fellow and Assistant Professor, School of Public Health; and Craig Hedberg, Professor, School of Public Health

Despite being a global concern, food safety is addressed in a systematic way only in some developed countries. We need an integrated ‘”system science” approach to managing the global food system that considers multiple needs and constraints, as well as an efficient system for transporting food and rapidly detecting food contamination and adulterations. Matteo Convertino and Craig Hedberg will describe a project that’s using computer modeling to predict and deal with food-borne disease outbreaks worldwide based on food supply chain structures and epidemiological data.

October 1 — How can the University of Minnesota assist the energy transition?

Hari Osofsky, IonE Resident Fellow, Law School Professor and Energy Transition Lab Faculty Director; and Ellen Anderson, Energy Transition Lab Executive Director

Our energy system is transitioning in ways that create critical challenges. Evolving approaches to sources of energy, electricity and transportation, energy infrastructure, energy efficiency, climate change, and environmental and energy justice affect every community and region and every sector of the economy. We need to remove barriers to needed change at local, state, regional, national, and international levels, and identify a holistic strategy for moving forward. Energy Transition Lab faculty director, IonE resident fellow, and Law School professor Hari Osofsky, and Energy Transition Lab executive director Ellen Anderson see Minnesota and beyond as a living laboratory for finding innovative solutions. They will explore how the lab will collaborate with business, government, NGO, community leaders, and university-based experts to make progress on these challenges.

October 8 — How Might the Twin Cities Help Catalyze Needed Global Urban Innovations?

Patrick Hamilton, Ione Resident Fellow and Director, Science Museum of Minnesota’s Global Change Initiatives; Anne Hunt, Environmental Policy Director, City of Saint Paul; Peter Frosch, Director of Strategic Partnerships, Greater MSP; and Mike Greco, Lecturer, Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, Humphrey School of Public Affairs

By 2050, more than 6 billion people will live in cities. The quality of life in these cities of the future — and, by extension, our planet — is being shaped by decisions we make today. Patrick Hamilton will engage panelists Anne Hunt, Peter Frosch, and Mike Greco in a lively discussion of how the Twin Cities — one of the healthiest, wealthiest, best educated, and most innovative, creative and connected urban centers in the world — might use its considerable academic, nonprofit and business acumen to shape initiatives that directly benefit its residents while also helping to advance creative urbanism everywhere.

October 15 — Should Society Put a Price Tag on Nature?

Steve Polasky, Ione Resident Fellow; Project Lead, Natural Capital Project; and Professor, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

Natural environments such as grasslands, forests and wetlands provide ecosystem services —benefits such as clean air and water and eye-pleasing landscapes. We value these amenities in the abstract, yet rarely figure them into a budget or balance sheet when developing a shopping mall or planting a cornfield. Steve Polasky will moderate a discussion about whether society could or should place a monetary value on nature — and if so, how to incorporate that value into decisions about resource management, conservation and environmental regulation.

October 22 — What Does a Sustainable Clean Water Future for Minnesota Look Like?

Bonnie Keeler, Lead Scientist, Natural Capital Project; Deb Swackhamer, Program Director, Water Resources Center; and John Linc Stine, Commissioner, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Minnesota has a reputation as a land of abundant, high-quality lakes and rivers. But is our water clean enough? Addressing surface water quality problems is expensive and not without trade-offs, such as lost industry, agricultural production and development. Bonnie Keeler, Deb Swackhamer and John Linc Stine will share their visions of a sustainable clean water future for Minnesota.

October 29 — What Is the Role of the Environment in This Year’s Minnesota Elections?

David Gillette, Special Correspondent, Twin Cities Public Television; Amy Koch, Small Business Owner and Former Minnesota Senate Majority Leader; and Mark Andrew, President, Greenmark

With all the statewide constitutional offices up for grabs — plus a federal senate seat — it’s a busy election year in Minnesota. Surveys show that while people care about the environment, they often don’t make it the top issue when voting. How important are environmental issues in this fall’s elections? How are environmental issues being framed? What impact might the election have on environmental policy in the state? And what can University of Minnesota faculty, staff and students do to help voters understand what’s at stake?

November 5 —  How Can We Make the Most of the Agriculture’s 21st Century Transformation?

Nicholas Jordan, IonE Resident Fellow and Professor of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; and Carissa Schively Slotterback, Associate Professor, Humphrey School of Public Affairs

Agriculture is in the midst of a revolutionary transformation. Output is rapidly shifting from a few predominant crops and commodities to a wide array of new foods, feeds, bioproducts and biofuels. At the same time, emphasis is shifting from minimizing adverse impacts to capitalizing on the potential of agriculture to improve soil, water, biodiversity and climate. Nicholas Jordan and Carissa Schively Slotterback will describe emerging opportunities and explore how one initiative in southern Minnesota is bringing science, social science and humanities together to develop and test a process for helping rural communities make the most of the economic and environmental benefits of the new bioeconomy as it develops around them .

November 12 — How Can We Help Children Connect to the Natural World?

Cathy Jordan, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota Extension Children, Youth, and Family Consortium

These days, kids spend more time staring at a computer monitor or playing with electronic games than they do interacting with nature. Cathy Jordan will address questions such as: What effect does this have on children’s well-being and, ultimately, the well-being of our planet? What are the benefits of connecting children to nature? What can urban planners, landscape architects, educators and parents do to foster engagement between children and the natural world?

November 29 — Environmentalists and Corporations Make Strange Bedfellows . . . Or Do They?

Steve Polasky, Ione Resident Fellow; Project Lead, Natural Capital Project; and Professor, College Of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences with [panelists to be named]

When we think of a group of environmentalists fighting to protect fragile habitat, we may imagine an angry mob outside the gates of a manufacturer, chanting and waving signs. Or circulating an online petition. Or maybe boycotting a product. But the times, they are a-changin.’ Modern-day environmentalists are taking seats in boardrooms and influencing business practices on a global scale. Steve Polasky and panelists will share insights, challenges and successes in this lively conversation about these 21st century partnerships.

Sustainability for the Nation: Resource Connection and Governance Linkages

Download the document (or purchase a hard copy for $46). An overview of the document appears in the current issue of Environmental Science & Technology.

A “sustainable society,” according to one definition, “is one that can persist over generations; one that is far-seeing enough, flexible enough, and wise enough not to undermine either its physical or its social system of support.” As the government sector works hard to ensure sufficient fresh water, food, energy, housing, health, and education for the nation without limiting resources for the future generations, it’s clear that there is no sufficient organization to deal with sustainability issues. Each federal agency appears to have a single mandate or a single area of expertise making it difficult to tackle issues such as managing the ecosystem. Key resource domains, which include water, land, energy, and nonrenewable resources, for example, are nearly-completely connected yet different agencies exist to address only one aspect of these domains.

The legendary ecologist John Muir wrote in 1911 that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Thus, in order for the nation to be successful in sustaining its resources, “linkages” will need to be built among federal, state, and local governments; nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); and the private sector. The National Research Council (NRC) was asked by several federal agencies, foundations, and the private sector to provide guidance to the federal government on issues related to sustainability linkages. The NRC assigned the task to as committee with a wide range of expertise in government, academia, and business. The committee held public fact-finding meetings to hear from agencies and stakeholder groups; examined sustainability management examples; conducted extensive literature reviews; and more to address the issue. Sustainability for the Nation: Resource Connection and Governance Linkages is the committee’s report on the issue.

The report includes insight into high-priority areas for governance linkages, the challenges of managing connected systems, impediments to successful government linkages, and more. The report also features examples of government linkages which include Adaptive Management on the Platte River, Philadelphia’s Green Stormwater Infrastructure, and Managing Land Use in the Mojave.

Meet The Russian Environmentalist Standing Up To Putin To Save The Country’s Ecosystem

Read the full story at Fast Company.

Suren Gazaryan tried to keep the Sochi Olympics from being an environmental disaster. After years battling the Russian government, he’s still fighting even though the rest of the world stopped paying attention.


Sustainability Research Networks Competition (SRN) 2014 Focus: Urban Sustainability

Applications due April 29, 2014. Access the full RFP at

The goal of the Sustainability Research Networks (SRN) competition is to bring together multidisciplinary teams of researchers, educators, managers, policymakers and other stakeholders to conduct collaborative research that addresses fundamental challenges in sustainability. The 2014 SRN competition will fund research networks with a focus on urban sustainability.

Proposals should identify an ambitious and nationally important theme in urban sustainability, present a creative and innovative research agenda that builds upon existing work in this area, and describe how a network of researchers and other stakeholders will be supported that integrates a variety of disciplines, sectors and backgrounds in order to create new perspectives and yield significant new understanding and knowledge.

The Sustainability Research Networks competition is part of the growing NSF investment in its Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) portfolio ( Challenges associated with broadly based SEES goals will be met by supporting fundamental science and engineering research and education needed to understand and overcome the barriers to sustainable human and environmental wellbeing and to forge reasoned pathways to a sustainable future. NSF aims to support members of the academic research community for projects which produce discoveries and knowledge that will inform decisions leading to environmental, energy, social and cultural sustainability. NSF support will advance the frontiers of conceptual, empirical and computational research in science, engineering and education so that the nation has the knowledge base to inform policies on sustainability.

Proposals may only be submitted by Universities and two- and four-year colleges (including community colleges) accredited in, and having a campus located in, the US acting on behalf of their faculty members.

NSF funding opportunity: Cyber-Innovation for Sustainability Science and Engineering (CyberSEES)

Full Proposal Deadline(s) (due by 5 p.m. proposer’s local time): April 08, 2014; February 03, 2015; First Tuesday in February, Annually Thereafter.

Full guidelines available at

Synopsis of Program:

The Cyber-Innovation for Sustainability Science and Engineering (CyberSEES) program aims to advance interdisciplinary research in which the science and engineering of sustainability are enabled by new advances in computing, and where computational innovation is grounded in the context of sustainability problems.

The CyberSEES program is one component of the National Science Foundation’s Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (SEES) activities, a Foundation-wide effort aimed at addressing the challenge of sustainability through support for interdisciplinary research and education. In the SEES context, a sustainable world is one where human needs are met equitably without harm to the environment or sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Computational approaches play a central role in understanding and advancing sustainability. CyberSEES supports research on all sustainability topics that depend on advances in computational areas including optimization, modeling, simulation, prediction, and inference; large-scale data management and analytics; advanced sensing techniques; human computer interaction and social computing; infrastructure design, control and management; and intelligent systems and decision-making. Additionally, the widespread, intensive use of computing technologies also introduces sustainability challenges and motivates new approaches across the lifecycle of technology design and use.

Who May Submit Proposals:

The categories of proposers eligible to submit proposals to the National Science Foundation are identified in the Grant Proposal Guide, Chapter I, Section E.

Who May Serve as PI:

Due to this program’s focus on interdisciplinary, collaborative research, a minimum of two collaborating investigators (PIs/Co-PIs) working in different disciplines is required. Applicants are urged to review the interdisciplinary, collaborative expectations of this program – described in the Program Description and Merit Review Criteria – which must be reflected in the project plans and project teams of all competitive proposals.

Limit on Number of Proposals per Organization:

There are no restrictions or limits.

Limit on Number of Proposals per PI or Co-PI: 2

An individual may appear as Principal Investigator (PI), Co-PI, or Senior Personnel (or any other similar designation) in no more than two proposals submitted in any one fiscal year in response to this solicitation. Applicants are responsible for ensuring that they comply with these restrictions. This eligibility constraint will be strictly enforced in order to treat everyone fairly and consistently. In the event that an individual exceeds this limit, proposals received within the limit will be accepted based on earliest date and time of proposal submission (e.g., the first two proposals received will be accepted and the remainder will be returned without review). No exceptions will be made.

Scientific Scope

This Cyber-Innovation for Sustainability Science and Engineering (CyberSEES) solicitation aims to advance computing and information sciences research and infrastructure in tandem with other disciplines to develop analyses, methods, prototypes, and systems that lead to an increased understanding of sustainability and to solutions to sustainability challenges. Proposals are expected to forge interdisciplinary collaborations among the computer and information sciences, social and natural sciences, geosciences, mathematical sciences, engineering, and associated cyberinfrastructure to address challenging sustainability problems.

Computational challenges are woven into many areas of sustainability research and their solutions are opening up possibilities for radical new approaches and unforeseen opportunities. Close intellectual partnerships among computing and other disciplines are essential to inform new approaches to these integrative challenges, respecting the specific characteristics of complex phenomena, data, and models; understanding the tradeoffs and consequences inherent to design and decision processes; and effectively dealing with limitations and constraints of computational techniques. Some prominent underlying challenges are outlined below. These descriptions are meant only as examples of integrative challenges, not intended to span the scope of program interests.

Large-scale Data Analysis and Management. Data sets used in many sustainability-related topics are challenging because of their complexity (such as control variables in smart infrastructures), heterogeneity (such as social or behavior data), or variability and uncertainty (such as environmental sensor data). Additionally, sustainability data often have distinct short-term and long-term end uses, and data sets must be appropriately curated with these uses in mind. The sustainability context requires attention to issues such as the use, management, and preservation of data over a large range of time scales; data modeling and ontologies; metadata extraction, management, and data provenance; and cognitive prediction/optimization applied to data sets of differing ontologies and semantics, aiming for causal inference to inform effective policies, decisions, management and control.

Robust Observation, Sensing, and Inference. Monitoring of human, built and natural systems, such as hydrologic, waterway, or atmospheric phenomena; species migrations; water, gas, or electricity distribution systems; requires scalable observation infrastructures. Effective infrastructures must be nondisruptive, easily deployed and managed, and be robust under sensor failures, and/or satisfy applicable security or privacy requirements. These monitoring systems must be able to operate unattended for long periods of time yet be remotely configurable, controllable, and testable for correct operation. Interdisciplinary research is needed on integrated sensing, monitoring and modeling for decision making in relation to air, water and soil environments, as well as the optimization of complex sensor systems.

Modeling of Complex Systems. Behavior in systems facing sustainability challenges, from caribou migration to power generation, is the result of complex interactions between human, built, and natural systems. Modeling, simulating, analyzing, and optimizing these systems may require combinations of physics- or economics-based models, model-based reasoning, and statistical models built from data, or interactions involving entities or individuals with different and often conflicting interests. New interdisciplinary research is needed for accurate and efficient methods of tackling complexity, scaling, uncertainty quantification, reliability, coupling between systems, massively parallel architectures and constrained optimization in order to achieve needed performance.

Dynamic and Intelligent Decision Making. Solving sustainability problems, particularly those relating to systems near tipping points (such as extreme events), often requires contending with dynamically evolving or unstable situations. These scenarios present challenges to modeling and decision making due to inadequate or changing data; model, data, and system response uncertainty; resource constraints; fast response needs; and risk, safety and security concerns. A key characteristic of these environments is the need to continuously assimilate new data as it becomes available and to effectively handle new or altered constraints. Techniques are also needed to proactively discover such changing constraints within these environments. Additionally, both dynamic and static sustainability-related data sets can leverage intelligence and machine learning methods exploiting massive parallelism, scaling relations in universal nonlinear function approximations, and ladders of uninformative priors to enable open-minded inference in the presence of spatial complexity, leading to data-enabled discovery.

Control and Management of Infrastructure. Smart and sustainable management of built systems such as future electric grids, involving insertion of renewable sources such as wind and solar power, and other energy infrastructures; transportation systems; manufacturing systems; and smart homes and buildings, requires comprehensive and flexible control systems that satisfy performance, policy, reliability, and other constraints. The design and study of these systems will require bold new computing research and knowledge in areas such as resource management algorithms and architectures, systems analysis, real-time coordination and communications. For smart grids in particular, challenges include but are not limited to efficient and secure electrical power management at multiple scales from grid-level to personal systems, and integration of renewable energy resources and home energy systems into an aware and enabled electric grid. The human and organizational contexts of control systems must be well understood and reflected in system design, in order to make them usable and sustainable.

Human-centered Systems. Large and long-lived impacts on sustainability will depend on human behavior, human factors, and collaboration across large communities. Sociotechnical systems built on sound understanding of people, organizations, and how to inform and assist them, will play a key role in sustainability efforts. Computational approaches will lead to tools and systems that support engagement and decision making by the public; collecting, modeling, and presenting information about resource usage via usable interfaces, appropriate visualizations, and persuasive technology; preference elicitation and decision support/automated decision making for effective and efficient use of resources; and models, methods and tools for dissemination and increasing awareness of sustainable practices.

The interdisciplinary challenges considered above are invariably shaped by human, societal, and economic factors, requiring consideration of the human interface, security and privacy, socio-cultural norms, non-compliance, herding behavior, economic incentives, and amenability to deployment in the real world. Sustainable systems must be designed for transparency, legitimation, and participation, and foster greater awareness of sustainability challenges, solutions and best practices among the workforce and greater population.

As information and communication technologies are applied with increasing intensity to address sustainability issues, there is a parallel challenge of sustainability of the computing and networking systems themselves. In particular, as computing and communication technologies – from mobile phones to massive data centers – proliferate, challenges in managing their consumption of energy, materials, and other resources have become a critical sustainability issue. CyberSEES also welcomes interdisciplinary research that addresses holistic, integrative approaches to sustainable computing and information technologies and systems, including consideration of design and use with impact across the lifecycle in mind.

As the SEES research community increases in number of researchers and breadth of scientific participation, the shared computing and communication infrastructure must allow easy and timely sharing of data and computational tools to advance interdisciplinary SEES research. CyberSEES welcomes cyberinfrastructure research that connects currently distinct SEES research activities.