News & Events

August 10th, 2000

CU-Boulder awarded $2.6 million from NSF for Carbon, Climate and Society study

A $2.6 million National Science Foundation grant to the University of Colorado at Boulder will allow scores of students from the natural sciences, social sciences and journalism fields to join forces and explore novel solutions to environmental problems.

"The primary focus is to more effectively train a new generation of real-world problem solvers," said CU-Boulder Associate Professor James White of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and co-principal investigator on the project with INSTAAR Assistant Professor Alan Townsend. CU-Boulder's "Carbon, Climate and Society Initiative" was selected for the project theme because of the scientific expertise available in Boulder, said Townsend.

CU-Boulder was one of 19 institutions selected by the NSF for Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training grants, or IGERT. NSF grants to the institutions will total $49 million over five years and are designed to meet the needs of educating doctoral scientists and engineers with multidisciplinary backgrounds and the technological and professional skills needed for future career demands.

"Scientists trained in this country today are not very effective at communicating their research to policymakers, economists or the public," said White, a geological sciences faculty member who also directs CU-Boulder's Environmental Studies Program. "We wanted to address this ïfailure to communicateÍ problem between scientists, journalists and the public in an arena that affects us all, in this case global climate change."

The unique program will merge students from diverse backgrounds in hopes that each will become more knowledgeable and well rounded in fields outside their expertise, said Townsend, also a faculty member in environmental, population and organismic biology. During the program's first year, graduate students from disciplines like political science, journalism, economics, environmental studies, chemistry and biology will work side-by-side, allowing them to better understand each other's skills and weaknesses.

The IGERT initiative also includes former Congressman David Skaggs of the CU Public Leader in Residence Program--who will bring the role of politics into the effort--and Daily Camera reporter Katy Human, on leave from the Boulder newspaper for a year after winning a Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism at CU-Boulder. Other participants include scientists from Boulder's National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Utah and the Max Plank Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany.

The participation of the Max Plank Institute is exciting because it is one of the premier research facilities in the world and also is located in Eastern Europe, which has a number of extremely serious environmental problems, Townsend said.

"Because humans are far more adept at causing environmental change than understanding the impact of these changes, the time has come to include humans and our behavior in models of Earth's systems," said White. Although the public could potentially have a large, positive influence on environmental problems, most people are not yet educated enough to understand what the solutions to such problems entail, he said.

"Global warming is more a problem of people than governments," said White, noting most citizens contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere daily by driving cars and heating homes. "The dissemination of accurate scientific news through journalists is key to the success of this program. "If we can't communicate our science to the general public, then in my mind we are not doing our job."

The diverse group of graduate students also will participate in working groups, summer retreats and summer internship programs. The internships will be held at places ranging from the CU campus and Boulder's federal laboratories to the University of Utah Stable Isotope Laboratory and the Max Plank Institute.

IGERT also will include participation by undergraduates, including underrepresented minorities. Program administrators will target high-achieving minority students from CU-Boulder's SMART Program and a similar NCAR program known as SOARS as part of the program.

Levels of atmospheric CO2 are at higher levels than at any time in recent geologic history and rising much faster than the highest rates in the paleoclimate record, said White. Climate models indicate such CO2 increases could bring higher temperatures, precipitation redistribution, more severe storms and a less stable and predictable global climate system.

"We need to make certain our young researchers embrace new kinds of training, new habits of mind and more global ways of looking at the questions before us," said NSF Director Rita Colwell. "That's what these IGERT programs are all about."