PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Brown University today announced the creation of a new Institute for the Study of Environment and Society (ISES). Drawing on faculty expertise from diverse disciplines, the institute will explore through research and teaching the linked social and environmental processes that will shape the future of the planet.
“We face enormous environmental challenges, solutions to which demand a multifaceted approach,” said Brown President Christina Paxson. “To make progress, we need new research in environmental science, as well as a better understanding of the economic, political and social factors that influence the adoption of best environmental practices. The new institute will build on Brown’s distinctive ability to integrate research across disciplines.
The Board of Fellows of the Brown Corporation approved the institute at its meeting Friday, April 11, 2014. ISES will launch formally with the start of the next academic year.
“Among the most important challenges facing humanity in the 21st century are those that revolve around supporting human aspirations while preserving the integrity of natural systems,” said Amanda Lynch, professor of geological sciences and director of the new institute. “These questions span scales from molecular to global and cross disciplines from climatology to political science to epidemiology. The goal of ISES is to draw on scholarship from across Brown’s campus to address these questions in a holistic way and to educate future leaders to address these critical challenges.”
Scholarship in the institute will be guided by four key questions:
- How can we understand the functioning and response of Earth’s natural systems in the face of rapid and pervasive global change?
- How can we optimize — effectively, efficiently, and equitably — food production and water distribution for current and future generations?
- How can we understand and support human health and wellbeing in the face of combined environmental and social vulnerability?
- What governance and economic structures facilitate these solutions in a just and equitable manner, in ways that support our most vulnerable people?
Answers to these complex and multifaceted questions will not be found in neatly packaged disciplinary boxes. To address them, ISES will engage Brown faculty from a wide variety of departments, including Geological Sciences, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Biostatistics, Epidemiology, Pathology, Sociology, Economics, Anthropology, Africana Studies and Political Science.
Guided by those four key questions, research themes will fall into four broad categories: natural systems, food and water, health and wellbeing, and equity and governance.
ISES aims to build upon Brown’s existing strengths in environmental teaching and research. For more than 35 years, the Center for Environmental Studies has been Brown’s hub of undergraduate teaching on the environment. CES will become part of ISES and will continue to implement a new curriculum developed for undergraduates last year.
Since 1995, Brown’s Environmental Change Initiative (ECI) has supported cross-disciplinary research in environmental studies. ISES will expand the scope of research done by ECI, which has been under Lynch’s direction since 2012. All ECI faculty fellows will move into ISES. ISES will provide an interdisciplinary home for faculty from Brown’s Population Studies and Training Center, the Superfund Research Program, and other projects. The institute will also house Brown’s herbarium and the Environmental And Remote TecHnologies (EARTH) Lab, which supports research activities related to geographic information systems and remote sensing.
By bringing research and teaching efforts under one umbrella, Lynch says, ISES takes advantage of an opportunity to align undergraduate teaching with faculty research activities.
“That alignment is good for students because it means that they can readily access capstone projects and summer research experiences that relate directly to their coursework,” she said. “That was very important to us because we see undergraduate education as the cornerstone of the institute.”
The institute, to be based in the University’s new Building for Environmental Research and Teaching (BERT), will comprise a core group of faculty fellows, along with affiliated faculty, staff, graduate students, and visiting scholars. In all, more than 40 faculty members are expected to affiliate with the institute once it is at full strength. Leah Van Wey, associate professor of sociology, and Dov Sax, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology will serve as deputy directors.
There are plans to add up to 11 faculty members over the next several years to serve as fellows at the institute. With an understanding that global questions require global perspectives, enhancing diversity will be a priority in the institute’s faculty recruitment and staff development.
ISES grew partly out of the process of developing Brown’s new strategic plan, Building on Distinction, which identifies “sustaining life on Earth” as an area of emphasis for integrative scholarship at Brown. Lynch says that all of the faculty members involved in developing the new institute wanted an organization that was reflective of Brown’s values as an institution.
“One of the things we wanted to do was draw on Brown’s mission, with an emphasis on usefulness and service,” Lynch said. “The way we interpret the institute’s role in that mission is to speak for the people who can’t speak for themselves. We want to find and implement solutions that not only sustain our environment, but also support the wellbeing of the world’s most vulnerable people.”