Institute on the Environment selects new Discovery Grant projects

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MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (2/3/2009) -- The Institute on the Environment has selected five new projects to receive major funding from its Discovery Grants program. The Discovery Grants program is part of the Institute’s high-impact investment strategy, which aims to accelerate innovation in environmental research and problem solving across the University of Minnesota.

The announcement of the grant awardees follows a highly competitive selection process. Approximately 25 teams of university faculty members and external partners submitted proposals for funding. All five of the selected projects build on the unique strengths of the university, engage both faculty and external organizations, and provide opportunities for graduate and postdoctoral leadership training, as well as undergraduate research.

“These new projects have the potential to make a transformative difference in global research and solutions related to climate change, water resources, land use, public health, economics, policy and public education,” says Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute.

The five projects help to round out the Institute’s research portfolio, which already includes the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, the Global Landscapes Initiative, Climate Central and River Life. Spanning several countries and three continents, the new projects also broaden the international scope of the Institute.

“We’ve refocused our mission to consider truly global problems linked to the sustainability of our energy, agriculture, ecosystems and fresh-water systems,” says Foley. “Finding new solutions to these problems is the best thing we can do for Minnesota’s economy and people. At the same time, it establishes the University of Minnesota as the go-to place for environmental research and discovery.”

Beginning in July 2009, the Institute will award between $400,000 and $800,000 to each of the following projects:

Accounting for Nature
Project coordinator: Stephen Polasky
The Institute will partner with Stanford University, the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, and several government agencies and other entities to develop new approaches to integrating economics and ecology—with a focus on how to assess the value of “ecosystem goods and services.” As a core part of this project, the team will further develop the Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs (InVEST) model, helping decision-makers consider the tradeoffs of managing ecosystems in different ways. This model could help change the direction of economic activities toward ensuring long-term sustainability while meeting the near-term needs of people.

Global Great Lakes
Project coordinator: Robert Hecky
The Institute will support researchers at the U of M-Duluth’s Large Lakes Observatory as they collect and interpret data on the world’s great lakes across North America, East Africa and Eurasia. LLO will work with UMD’s Natural Resources Research Institute and the Center for Water Research in Australia to identify meaningful metrics of ecosystem health; improve the capacity to monitor and model these metrics in real-time or near real-time, with an initial focus on the western arm of Lake Superior; and develop the capacity to anticipate, rather than react to, pressing environmental issues. This project could radically change how the great lakes of the world are viewed and managed by scientists, decision makers and the general public.

Reinventing the Boreal Forest
Project coordinator: Peter Reich
The Institute will partner with state, national, and international academic, government, industry and environmental organizations to better understand boreal forests in Minnesota and spanning North America, and how they interact with humans in the face of climate, economic and social change. The group will work to develop scenarios for the future that are instructive about the implications of society’s choices; use these results to boost resilience by developing forward-looking, adaptive management techniques; and strengthen or build partnerships among relevant stakeholders to design and implement landscape-scale adaptive management strategies.

Project coordinator: Patrick Hamilton
In collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Institute will create new programming for worldwide audiences through Science-on-a-Sphere (SOS) technology. Developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, SOS is a room-sized, global display system that uses computers and video projectors to show planetary data on a large sphere, akin to a giant animated globe, that hangs from the ceiling. The educational tool illustrates global environmental issues, such as climate change, tropical deforestation and global ecosystem change, in a dynamic way to people of all ages. The Institute will install a smaller, spherical display at its St. Paul campus headquarters, and will work with the Science Museum and the University of Minnesota’s National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics to develop and distribute new SOS programs internationally.

Whole Village Project
Project coordinators: Craig Packer and Katey Pelican
The Whole Village Project works to provide an in-depth understanding of the health, prosperity, education and natural resource consumption of rural Tanzanians in East Africa. This information is made available to the villagers, economic development and government agencies, and conservation NGOs, serving as a common language that allows communities to more easily collaborate and share best practices. The WVP team will work with the Institute to map land-use patterns of the region, focusing on the intersection of rural livelihoods, land use practices, agriculture and food security. A parallel track focused on food safety and security will promote sustainable agriculture, as well as health research and extension, in Tanzania.