UW's new Environment College: just for the believers?

The first-ever dean of the college, Lisa Graumlich, must get high-profile scientists to cooperate with one another, and to communicate with the public on climate science.
Lisa Graumlich

Lisa Graumlich Courtesy of the University of Washington

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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Posted Sat, Jun 26, 9:12 a.m. Inappropriate

"Chances are, few people expect the college to be about jobs."

No wonder to me our present predicaments. UW and Oregon State used to be the premier west coast forestry schools. Guess now UW will study the flora and fauna in environmental dream land.

Who cares about jobs anyway?

Posted Mon, Jun 28, 12:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Well, EKCRL, speaking of jobs, and "explaining," at least you can take comfort in knowing that this dean we just read about has hired the ex-Regional Director of The Wilderness Society as her flack (excuse me, spokesperson......) no doubt for a salary well into the six figures.......

I guess the dean's time is way too important and her staus far too lofty to ever deign to talk to any of the few reporters remaining around here. Hence the need for highly paid explainers. A rare and valuable skill, that explaining. Maybe they should have an Explaining College?

But hey, there are thousands of people "working" at the UW in similar circumstances, and an Explaining College could train more. Maybe not all could have quite such a cushy gig, but still, I think you might agree it's nice "work," if you can get it. And guess who will be the last to worry about budget cuts? Not the explainers.

Can we say "sinecure...?" If the UW vanished tomorrow, would anyone other than these highly remunerated people who do little or nothing of value miss it? Would you? I don't think I would. I sure wouldn't miss paying for them.

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