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New IU Grand Challenge initiative to tackle major environmental threats to Hoosier health, economy

grand-challenges-logo-500x195pxIndiana University 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 environment change. The initiative—Prepared for Environment 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 initiative will create an Environmental Resilience Institute 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. The Polis Center will play a role in the project, using its “deep mapping” capabilities, integrating data and visualizations for researchers and the general public to experience a new understanding of the interdependency of social and environmental change to date.

“Environmental change has been a constant through history,” McRobbie said. “Areas that were once fertile are now deserts. Areas that were once covered in huge glaciers are now home to major farming activity. Our state is not immune to changing environmental conditions, and these may cause major changes for some of the state’s most valuable assets and industries.

“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.”

To address and combat these increasingly complex threats, IU researchers — led by internationally acclaimed scientist Ellen Ketterson, IU Distinguished Professor of Biology — will build 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 re-use 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.”

Last year, IU announced the first initiative of the $300 million Grand Challenges Program — the Precision Health Initiative — designed to provide state-of-the art medical treatments tailored to individual Hoosiers based on their own unique genetic, environmental and behavioral factors.

The Prepared for Environmental Change initiative will enhance IU’s investment in the Precision Health Initiative by preparing Hoosiers to reduce growing public health risks that ultimately lead to a need for precision-medicine-based treatments. By design, each Grand Challenges initiative is an investment in research that will substantially and tangibly address some of the most critical issues facing Indiana and the world.


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