First Impressions at Columbia’s Earth Institute

by |May 23, 2018

It has been a fantastic first few weeks at the Earth Institute in my role as the new director. I was excited about getting started at Columbia, but in the past weeks I also have been greatly impressed by the colleagues I have met and the events I’ve attended. Naturally, I’ve spent a great deal of time meeting staff, listening and learning about the Institute and its many centers and activities, and getting to know both Columbia University and New York City. Reflecting on this early time here, I’d like to highlight something that I found particularly special about the Earth Institute: activities that go beyond Columbia and engage with practitioners, government officials and policymakers, corporate stakeholders, and the public. This connection of academia to the real world is particularly evident at the Earth Institute.

Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center, speaking at the America’s Water event. (Photo: Lisa Mucciacito)

The first such meeting was hosted by the Columbia Water Center on the state of America’s Water. It kicked off with an inspirational talk about the New York region’s focus on sustainability by New Jersey’s First Lady Tammy Snyder Murphy.  It was an impressive forum that brought together academics, industry leaders and government representatives to discuss issues of America’s water infrastructure, and how to build modern solutions and funding mechanisms. It was great to see broad engagement of leaders from multiple sectors in a solutions-oriented discussion.

That same week, I had the pleasure of welcoming the Independent Advisory Committee on Applied Climate Assessment to Columbia University. This group was a federal advisory committee, disbanded by the present U.S. Government Administration, despite having been tasked with the important job of developing recommendations to help the public and private sectors to prepare for the impacts of climate change. The committee is chaired by Richard Moss, and was “rescued” by the Earth Institute and others so that it could complete its work. I look forward to seeing their final recommendations.

Alex Halliday speaking at the policy forum hosted by Columbia’s Office of Government & Community Affairs, and the Earth Institute. (Photo: Bashar Makhay)

In my second week, I participated in a policy forum co-hosted by Columbia’s Office of Government and Community Affairs and the Earth Institute. The forum was an opportunity for elected officials, Columbia faculty and researchers to discuss policy challenges facing New York City, New York State and the nation. This year’s forum focused on extreme weather and resiliency, specifically discussing impacts in New York, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Around the table were scientists, city, state and national government representatives, community group representatives, and public health practitioners, to name a few.

Columbia University, like most top academic institutions, typically thinks of global challenges that need to be addressed by the world’s greatest thinkers. Historically, some such institutions have not done so well at connecting with and serving their own neighborhoods and regions. This has been changing in many universities, but the level of engagement with policymakers and the local community achieved in the Earth Institute is particularly impressive. It is important for three reasons.

First, much of our activity is funded by the public, either directly in tuition fees, or indirectly through federal grants. Academic institutions need to demonstrate the benefits of this funding, especially to local communities where one is trying to create a stimulating people-science-business “ecosystem.”

Second, many of the most interesting questions may not be those that academics and researchers come up with themselves. People from the region confronted by sustainability problems will often pose the hardest and most important questions that we should be seeking to answer.

Third, many of the impacts of climate change and environmental damage are more regional than global in nature, as are the adaptation strategies that are required. Therefore, it makes sense to operate at this scale.

The Earth Institute was founded to promote sustainability research, education, application and outreach, by networking and building upon Columbia’s considerable academic strengths in many of the relevant core disciplines. In my short time here it has been great to see up front how effective it is at applying that knowledge to problems faced by governments and businesses around the world, as well as those located here on our doorstep. The Institute has a lot to be proud of and we will aim to build on these successes and other regional and national connections.

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