When I spoke by phone last week with Lisa Graumlich, she was getting ready to drive north from Tucson to Seattle, where she will become the UW College of the Environment"s first dean.
The new college, approved by the regents two years ago, started offering courses last fall. It incorporates some of the UW's marquee divisions, including the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, the Department of Earth and Space Sciences, and the School of Forest Resources.
Graumlich is no stranger to interdisciplinary collections of academics, or to the Northwest. In Tucson, she directed the University of Arizona's School of Natural Resources and the Environment, which is similar, albeit smaller. Before taking over there, she served as executive director of Montana State University's interdisciplinary Big Sky Institute for Science and Natural History. She got her Ph.D. from the UW College of Forest Resources.
Getting people in the new College of the Environment to solve problems collaboratively instead of staying within their separate disciplines is ”part of the vision,” Graumlich told me, and she herself will be evaluated on her success in fostering cooperation both across the campus and between the campus and the community. Will it be hard to get people of different departmental cultures working together? Graumlich laughed. “Oh my gosh!” she said. “If it was easy, someone would have done it a long time ago.”
That said, the new college is “not just any old collection of departments.” She noted that it includes one of the biggest atmospheric sciences departments in the country and an earth sciences group whose research is cited more than that of any similar department in the country except Harvard's.
Some departments have done very traditional academic research. Others, such as fisheries and forestry, “have from the get-go been problem-oriented.” In addition, the UW has had “a long history of co-location of federal scientists on campus," Graumlich said. "Having that co-location on campus is a real asset, I think.”
With a mix of theoretical and applied scientists, “we've got the best of both worlds.” And she thinks it will be important to nurture both worlds. Even with its new emphasis on problem-solving, the college will have to “make sure there are reward systems that reward the most theoretical of our scientists as well as our most applied ones.”
Nevertheless, she suggested that “we can no longer afford what I call the 'loading dock' type of science”: do some research, put it out on the dock, and see if someone picks it up. And that approach won't snag National Science Foundation grants any more, Graumlich explained. Now, anyone applying for a major NSF grant must include a page on the project's larger social value.
People have long talked hopefully about the economic value of scientific research, calling it a driver of jobs and economic growth, although a recent Nature article suggests that the claims are largely unsupported. Washington has a state-level policy of creating green jobs. Clearly, Graumlich says, UW research has helped create the Seattle area's medical and biotech infrastructure, and she wonders if it can do the same for green jobs.
“Can we really make this green jobs and green economy . . . work?" Graumlich said. "If we can't do it in the Northwest, I don't know where we can do it." Nevertheless, she suspects a lot of things touted as green jobs are just traditional occupations given a coat of green paint. So, it will be important to have the college “kicking the tires” to determine what's real and what's not.
Chances are, few people expect the college to be about jobs. This isn't 1975 anymore, but still, one may read “college of the environment” and wonder if the goal is research or advocacy. “It is a college of the environment,” Graumlich said. “People are often attracted to the science of the environment because of deeply held hopes and beliefs.”
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