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.
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Lisa Graumlich

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.

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 'ꀝpart of the vision,'ꀝ 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. 'ꀜOh my gosh!'ꀝ she said. 'ꀜIf it was easy, someone would have done it a long time ago.'ꀝ

That said, the new college is 'ꀜnot just any old collection of departments.'ꀝ 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, 'ꀜhave from the get-go been problem-oriented.'ꀝ In addition, the UW has had 'ꀜa long history of co-location of federal scientists on campus," Graumlich said. "Having that co-location on campus is a real asset, I think.'ꀝ

With a mix of theoretical and applied scientists, 'ꀜwe've got the best of both worlds.'ꀝ And she thinks it will be important to nurture both worlds. Even with its new emphasis on problem-solving, the college will have to 'ꀜmake sure there are reward systems that reward the most theoretical of our scientists as well as our most applied ones.'ꀝ

Nevertheless, she suggested that 'ꀜwe can no longer afford what I call the 'loading dock' type of science'ꀝ: 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.

'ꀜCan 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 'ꀜkicking the tires'ꀝ 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 'ꀜcollege of the environment'ꀝ and wonder if the goal is research or advocacy. 'ꀜIt is a college of the environment,'ꀝ Graumlich said. 'ꀜPeople are often attracted to the science of the environment because of deeply held hopes and beliefs.'ꀝ

On one hand, she said, 'ꀜI will be delighted to see faculty and research associates'ꀝ getting involved. On the other, 'ꀜwe've got to create a rich dialog about what the difference between doing science and doing advocacy is.'ꀝ

At the end of last week, the thermometer in Tucson hit 105. That's not unusual, but the Southwest has been going through a drought for years. The University of Arizona is a great center for studying historical weather patterns revealed by tree rings.

At lower elevations, the trees reflect patterns of rainfall. Up higher, near timberline, they reflect patterns of temperature. Graumlich herself has studied the trees higher up. 'ꀜI've always been drawn to high mountain areas,'ꀝ she said. After she and others have examined the tree rings near timber line, 'ꀜwe've been able to say that the northern hemisphere temperatures in the last decade far exceed the normal northern hemisphere temperatures.'ꀝ

But the trees at all elevations convey sobering messages. 'ꀜNo matter whether or not you 'believe' in global warming,'ꀝ Graumlich said, you can't just dismiss 'ꀜthe story that the tree rings tell us." After a decade of dry weather in the Southwest so severe that pinon pines are dying (and the forest is burning up near Flagstaff), it's clear that 'ꀜthese big, extended droughts have to be taken into account."

She suggested that it may be easier to convince people about the impact of climate patterns in the Southwest than it is here. 'ꀜWhen you're in a drought here in the Southwest,'ꀝ she said, 'ꀜthe stuff in your front yard dies.'ꀜ In the damper Northwest, people have to notice clues that are a bit 'ꀜmore subtle." That makes it "all the more important for the College of the Environment (to be) able to explain'ꀝ what's going on in ways that people grasp.

But this is certainly a region in which people will be eager to grasp the realities. 'ꀜThat's the good news," Graumlich said.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.