Indiana University plans to hire 16 faculty members and spend $55 million to study how Indiana can prepare for the effects of climate change, a vast topic that could include droughts, flooding, soil loss and rapidly spreading diseases.
The university announced Wednesday morning that the initiative, called “Prepared for Environmental Change,” is the latest project funded through its $300 million Grand Challenges Program.
The centerpiece of the initiative will be a new Environmental Resilience Institute, based in Bloomington. Its role will be to help predict the impact of environmental threats and to facilitate conversations among IU faculty and Indiana residents, businesses and the public sector.
The institute’s researchers will build projections of environmental change and then propose policy solutions for governments, businesses and community groups, said Ellen Ketterson, IU distinguished professor of biology, who will lead the research. The policy proposals could include making certain investments in agriculture, industry, infrastructure and public health.
“If we knew all the answers, we wouldn’t be needing to gather together new expertise,” she said in an interview with IBJ. “We would just enact. But in fact, we really do need to learn how the environment is going to change in different portions of Indiana and the Midwest.”
The IU team will inaugurate a “Hoosier Resiliency Index,” which the university said will allow Indiana communities to track immediate and long-term challenges caused by environmental change. IU President Michael McRobbie said the size and scope of the challenges require an unprecedented level of collaboration between the public and private sectors, including the resources of a major research university.
“Our state is already experiencing dramatic effects of changing environmental conditions, which are threatening some of our most valuable assets and industries,” he said in a written statement.
The changes include heavier spring flooding and hotter, drier summers, as well as altered growing seasons and migratory patterns, soil loss and rapidly spreading diseases such as Lyme disease, Zika virus and West Nile virus, the university said.
IU will use about one-third of the $55 million budget to hire 16 faculty members across the university at the Bloomington and Indianapolis campuses. In Bloomington, the hires will include three in biology, two in geology, 2-1/2 in public and environmental affairs, and one each in geography, history, law and media. At the IUPUI campus in Indianapolis, the new hires will include two in earth sciences, one each in public health and philanthropy, and one-half in geography.
The other two-thirds of the budget will be used on research projects and to fund people who will help with the work.
“The goal is not just to build up the faculty, but to really be engaged in the community and working with our partners so that we’re actually seeing what we’ve learned in the lab applied to the field,” said Fred Cate, IU’s vice president for research.
The university’s partners on the project include diesel manufacturer Cummins Inc., utility Citizens Energy Group, the Nature Conservancy and various government groups.
The move is the latest push by a major university to address the challenges of climate change. Other universities doing work in the area include the Emmett Institute on Climate Change & the Environment at the University of California at Los Angeles, which proposes policy solutions to environmental problems; and Cornell University’s Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, which, according to its website, “works toward a future where agricultural, environmental, and social systems are resilient in the face of a rapidly changing climate."