With SPEA faculty as key contributors, IU President Michael A. McRobbie has announced that IU will invest $55 million to help Indiana develop actionable solutions that prepare businesses, farmers, communities and individual Hoosiers for the effects of ongoing environmental change. The initiative—Prepared for Environmental Change—is the second project funded through IU's $300 million Grand Challenges Program, which launched in 2015.
Indiana is already experiencing heavier spring flooding and hotter, drier summers, and the pace of change is expected to increase. The visible effects of changes in weather patterns also give rise to less obvious environmental changes that include altered growing seasons and migratory patterns, soil loss, and rapidly spreading diseases like Lyme disease, Zika virus and West Nile virus. Together, these complex changes threaten agricultural production, infrastructure stability, public health, and the diversity of plant and animal life.
The SPEA faculty involved in the initiative come from across the school and include Beth Gazley, Vicky Meretsky, Burnell Fischer, Abdul-Akeem Sadiq, Dan Cole, Brad Fulton, Shahzeen Attari, Lee Hamilton, and Sarah Mincey. Gazley is part of the 12-person IU team that wrote the initial proposal and who will continue to serve as the steering committee.
The initiative will create an Environmental Resilience Institute at Indiana University (ERI@IU) to better predict the impact of these threats and facilitate collaboration between IU's world-class faculty and Indiana residents, businesses, nonprofits, and the public sector. Some of the partners include Cummins Inc., Citizens Energy Group, the Nature Conservancy, and government officials from across Indiana. As soon as this summer, researchers will begin putting in place the infrastructure to collect data about the challenges Indiana faces from environmental change and to organize research activities to address them.
Gazley is most closely affiliated with Urban Green Infrastructure, a program within the grant.
“Focusing on Indianapolis as a test city, I bring an interest in community resilience as it involves nonprofit organizations and the citizens they interact with,” she said. “For example, even with a lot of effort from the Red Cross, it’s very hard to get citizens to take emergency preparedness seriously. So the multidisciplinary nature of this large project is what got me involved. It will allow me to partner with other scientists producing the forecasting data and studying human risk behavior. The solution to large societal problems rests in these large, interdisciplinary research teams.”
McRobbie echoed that point at the announcement news conference: “The size and scope of these changes demand extensive collaboration between key public- and private-sector stakeholders. Great research universities like IU are uniquely positioned to help lead these partnerships and provide the intellectual talent, resources, and expertise to develop and implement innovative and high-impact solutions to the most pressing needs of our local communities, our state and our world in the face of environmental change.”
In addition to Urban Green Infrastructure, the IU researchers—led by internationally acclaimed scientist Ellen Ketterson, IU Distinguished Professor of Biology—will build other Indiana-specific projections of environmental change that equip governments, businesses, and community groups to respond with the right investments in agriculture, industry, infrastructure, and public health and safety.
“Environmental challenges impact us all and present a threat to quality of life around the world,” said Karen Cecil, director of global environmental sustainability at Cummins Inc. “Developing solutions to these challenges are paramount to the long-term health of communities and our economy.
“The success of Indiana's advanced manufacturing industry depends on natural resources and a complex global supply chain that's put at risk by environmental change. That's why initiatives like this one that help us adapt to these pressures are so crucial to our state, our business and our way of life.”
With community-based readiness, discussion, and understanding as core goals, the initiative will look at new strategies for communicating findings and recommendations with Hoosiers in ways that are clear, precise, and understandable. For example, the team will inaugurate a Hoosier Resiliency Index to help Indiana communities track and enhance responsiveness to immediate and long-term challenges caused by environmental change.
“We aren't here to debate partisan differences on climate change or what might happen years from now,” Ketterson said. “We're here because we can already see the year-round effects of the changes in our environment.
“Making ourselves more resilient in the face of environmental change isn't just about rising sea levels or droughts in some far away country. It's about protecting Hoosier farmers from invasive species, stopping the spread of diseases with broad-reaching impacts for our children, conserving the plants and animals that sustain us, defending ourselves from serious weather disasters, and creating more livable towns and cities.
“We are facing very real threats to Hoosier livelihoods. If we're going to be a 'state that works,' we need to be a state that's prepared for what's to come.”
Ketterson said her team’s research will lead to a wide variety of local partnerships across many industries. For example, the team will work with the Indianapolis Office of Sustainability, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, and Citizens Energy Group to apply environmental and social research to pioneer a new model for water reuse in Pleasant Run Creek. This project will provide resiliency to the fresh water supply, as well as reduce flooding risk, enhance carbon sequestration, improve the wildlife corridor, and provide for economic and neighborhood revitalization. The IU research team will also pilot a program that helps farmers and land owners forecast soil and water conditions.
“This IU team is going to tackle issues that affect every Hoosier,” said Fred H. Cate, vice president for research. “Working in partnership with industry, government and key community groups, this initiative will not only help institutions and individuals prepare for the complex and significant impact of our changing environment but also serve as a model for other states.”