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St. Louis River, Jay Cooke State Park, Duluth

A team led by the U's new Institute on the Environment has won a $300,000 contract to prepare a comprehensive conservation and preservation plan for the state of Minnesota.

First flight for fledgling institute

A $300K contract funds a comprehensive conservation
and preservation plan for the state of Minnesota

By Jim Thorp

Jan. 18, 2006

The University of Minnesota's new Institute on the Environment just named 15 founding fellows and does not yet have bylaws or physical space, but it already has a lot of work to do.

The institute was recently awarded a $300,000 contract from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) to develop a comprehensive conservation and preservation plan for the state of Minnesota. As a result, within the next several months, more than 40 faculty members from 12 different departments and eight separate colleges will put the concept of the interdisciplinary institute to the test.

"This is a perfect example of what the Institute on the Environment was designed to do: bringing diverse talent and perspectives together to tackle a complicated environmental issue," says interim director and professor of environmental health sciences Deb Swackhamer. "The faculty actually came to me and asked the institute to facilitate it--they were hesitant to take it on as an ad hoc group of investigators. After our presentation to the commission, the feedback was that they were thrilled the U had stepped up to partner with the state, true to its land-grant mission."

About the project
Led by the U's Institute on the Environment, the conservation and preservation plan consulting team will:

>> Build upon existing plans to create a comprehensive new strategy
>> Identify current, emerging and future issues and trends affecting Minnesota's resources
>> Prioritize issues that should be addressed
>> Provide implementation strategies to address the issues
>> Determine general cost and benefit analysis of proposed strategies
>> Establish bench marks to measure and evaluate progress

For more information on the project, visit the LCCMR Web site or view the press release (DOC 36 KB).

The project is an early success for the institute--and a boon for the working relationship between the U and the state. The project provides a practical test case for the institute's proposed structure--U researchers and external partners working in interdisciplinary teams on specific projects or problems related to broad environmental themes. A preliminary plan is scheduled for completion this June, which means the institute will have to work quickly. The final plan is due in June 2008.

"I think it will help the Institute develop even faster--instead of just evolving around theoretical constructs, we have a contract in place as a concrete example," says Swackhamer. "We are also collaborating with two private Twin Cities design firms, demonstrating one of our guiding principles: working with partners on real-world issues."

The project should also help to illustrate another idea at the core of the institute--that the University of Minnesota is uniquely positioned to tackle such issues by virtue of its comprehensive academic resources; its threefold mission of education, research and outreach; and its geographic footprint, which includes prairie and forest biomes, the Great Lakes, the Great Plains, and three major river basins.

Swackhamer's conviction is evident--she knows the U's diverse strengths and looks forward to the broad-based, coordinated effort the conservation and preservation plan represents.

"The point of the institute is to build diverse teams of scholars, to provide opportunities for synergistic interactions among people with different ways of looking at things, different talents and skills," she says. "These teams can address complex studies (like this one) that could not be addressed as effectively with a few researchers. It will position us to tackle the 'big' issues of the day beyond what is already being done at the U."

FURTHER READING Environmental institute names founding fellows Environmental institute to set new standards for interdisciplinary work Board of Regents actions advance Transforming the U agenda Swackhamer named interim director of new environmental institute