Solutions Newsletter - Letter from David Hart
Science is pretty good at describing society’s problems. Now it needs to do a better job solving them.
As a scientist, I haven’t had an easy time admitting this. Yet I think it’s the first step toward change. Questioning science’s relevance to society also helps explain what brought together an unlikely mix of faculty and innovators at the University of Maine a few years ago.
We represented many fields. Biology and economics. Anthropology and engineering. Communications, forestry, public policy and many more. At the end of the day, we realized we had something amazing in common—we all wanted our research to help solve problems in the real world.
That first conversation led to many more—and to a $20 million, five-year EPSCoR grant from the National Science Foundation to launch Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative in 2009. We set out to advance knowledge in the new field of sustainability science, and put that knowledge into action by helping Maine communities solve urgent problems at the intersection of economic, social and environmental issues.
Today, SSI is leading Maine’s transition to a sustainable future. We’re also among the nation’s leaders in sustainability science, with 108 faculty collaborating in 26 interdisciplinary teams. These teams are working on key sustainability issues including renewable energy development, urban planning, water resource management and the future of Maine’s North Woods. In collaboration with a wide array of stakeholders, they are helping Mainers identify strategies that can simultaneously create new and better jobs, strengthen communities and protect the environment.
Yes, that’s ambitious. It’s also, as our T-shirt says, MESSI (maybe it’s no coincidence that this is the acronym for Maine SSI). But our researchers value the opportunity to work with communities and recognize that their input is key to truly sustainable solutions. SSI scientists are out on the streets of Eastport and nearby towns listening to residents’ needs and concerns to help guide the sustainable development of tidal power. A research team in central Maine is meeting with local organizations to tackle deteriorating water quality in lakes. Another SSI team is collaborating with Maine towns to develop improved strategies for balancing economic development with natural resource protection.
We’re also educating students to be the problem solvers of the future. SSI offers opportunities for all levels—post-doctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students, and students in grades K-12—to do hands-on problem solving and gain experience in interdisciplinary teamwork. In 2010 alone, nearly 200 students participated in research internships with SSI.
We’ll keep you posted on our progress. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy the stories in this, SSI’s first newsletter. For more, visit our website at http://umaine.edu/mitchellcenter/.
Research Leader, Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative
and Director, Senator George J. Mitchell Center