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Maintaining Earth's sustainability: Scientists, engineers, educators take coordinated approach

Coordinating phosphorus research to create a sustainable food system; studying urban heat islands; and advancing social and environmental understanding of mountain landscapes are all topics of new grants totaling $5 million recently made through the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) portfolio.

The awards are through NSF's SEES-Research Coordination Networks (RCN) program.

Grants also include building a research network for promoting Arctic urban sustainability in Russia; multidisciplinary approaches to carbon capture, utilization and storage; creating an engineering research collaboratory for sustainable infrastructure in a changing climate; and developing an integrated network for social sustainability concepts, language and assessment.

"These collaborative projects address difficult challenges that threaten the sustainability of our country's natural resources and built environment," says Thomas Peterson, NSF assistant director for Engineering.

"With a sound base in science and engineering, sustainable development can benefit society, the economy and the environment over the long term."

SEES activities span the range of scientific domains at NSF.

SEES RCN awards are supported by NSF's Directorates for Biological Sciences; Computer & Information Science & Engineering; Education and Human Resources; Engineering; Geosciences; Mathematical & Physical Sciences; Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences; Office of Cyberinfrastructure; Office of International Science and Engineering; and Office of Polar Programs.

These NSF directorates and offices support interdisciplinary research and education projects that will move society toward global sustainability; build new links among existing projects and partners; add new participants in sustainability research; and develop the workforce needed to understand and address the complex issues of environmental sustainability.

"An important metric of the success of a program like SEES RCN is the legacy it will leave long after the program has been completed," says Marge Cavanaugh, NSF acting assistant director for Geosciences.

"The interdisciplinary partnerships that SEES RCN projects will create, along with the broadly educated and creative students and young researchers they will produce, are just as important as the new processes and links that will be discovered."

Sustainability science and engineering goes beyond adaptation to and mitigation of environmental change. A sustainable world is one in which human needs are met without harm to the environment, and without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their needs in turn.

This formidable task requires understanding the integrated system of society and the natural world, along with the alterations humans are making on Earth, scientists, engineers and educators believe.

NSF's SEES activities are addressing this need by supporting interdisciplinary research and education leading to a better understanding of, predictive capability for, and solutions to environmental challenges.

The RCN program's goal is to advance a scientific field or create new directions in research and education. Groups of investigators coordinate their research, training and education activities across disciplinary, organizational, geographic and international boundaries.

The program fosters new collaborations, including international partnerships, and addresses interdisciplinary topics.

By linking U.S. and international scientists in research on sustainable cities, energy, water, engineering and manufacturing sustainability, and related subjects, SEES RCNs are creating new directions in sustainability science and engineering.

NSF SEES RCN 2012 awardees and their institutions and projects are:

James Elser, Arizona State University: RCN-SEES: Coordinating Phosphorus Research to Create a Sustainable Food System

James Gosz, University of Idaho: RCN-SEES: Advancing our social and environmental understanding of complex mountain landscapes and their vulnerability to environmental change

Jennifer Jacobs, University of New Hampshire: RCN-SEES: Engineering Research Collaboratory for Sustainable Infrastructure in a Changing Climate

Robert Orttung, George Washington University: RCN-SEES: Building a Research Network for Promoting Arctic Urban Sustainability in Russia

Ah-Hyung Park, Columbia University: RCN-SEES: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage

Nicole Peterson, University of North Carolina at Charlotte: RCN-SEES: Integrated Network for Social Sustainability: Concepts, Language, and Assessment

Peter Snyder, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities: RCN-SEES: Urban Heat Island Network


Contact: Cheryl Dybas
National Science Foundation

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