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Cornell gets $10 million NSF grant to establish new sustainability institute

Could a computer model help stabilize the tuna population? Can we compute how to transition to ethanol fuel without jeopardizing food production?

Those and other questions will be tackled by computer scientists, applied mathematicians, economists, biologists and environmental scientists affiliated with Cornell University's new Institute for Computational Sustainability, being launched with a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). This program is designed to pursue "far-reaching research agendas that promise significant advances in the computing frontier and great benefit to society."

Directed by Carla Gomes, Cornell professor of computing and information science, the institute will involve 14 Cornell faculty members along with scientists at Oregon State University, Howard University, Bowdoin College, the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Conservation Fund.

"Our vision is that computing and information science can and should play a key role in increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the way we manage and allocate our natural resources," Gomes said.

Many of today's problems in ecology and conservation involve juggling large numbers of variables, often to find the optimum way to balance them. Some are so complex, the researchers say, that they will require new advances in computer science. Gomes and her team hope to create a new field of computational sustainability, analogous to computational biology, that will stimulate new developments in the computer science areas of constraint optimization, dynamical systems and machine learning. The researchers are also launching a new Journal of Computational Sustainability.

The institute will collaborate extensively with the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future and a number of other sustainability programs on campus. But, said Gomes, "Our mission is to extend beyond the initial members of the institute, including graduate and undergraduate students in the Cornell community in other disciplines. If there is someone who has a nice computational problem about wind turbines or solar energy, for example, we want to collaborate with and help support them."

The institute already has several interdisciplinary research projects under way, including:

  • Wildlife Corridors for Grizzly Bears Optimizing the design of land corridors for grizzlies that now live in three separate areas in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana to find a viable route while reducing the cost of land acquisition.

  • Biofuels Developing models to transition to an ethanol economy, taking into account the needs of households, landowners, ethanol producers, gasoline refiners and food producers.

  • Bird Conservation Preserving bird habitats and designing bird corridors by analyzing hemispheric-scale bird migrations involving literally billions of birds. Studies will use detailed data on bird populations collected through the citizen-science programs at Cornell's Lab of Ornithology.

  • Rotational Management of Fishing Grounds Conserving and buffering valuable fish stocks and marine biodiversity with a computer model to decide the optimal number of "no-fish zones," their location, size and the number of years they should be open or closed to fishing.

  • Pastoral Systems in East Africa Better understanding how the interaction between precipitation and forage resources, the location of water wells, the dynamics of groundwater stock and the possibility of fencing and rotating livestock to different pastures influence poverty, food security and environmental stress in Africa.


Contact: Blaine Friedlander
Cornell University Communications

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