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Collaboration + Data = Answers Environmental Science’s Big Questions

by Sandra Nierzwicki-Bauer, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

How does road salt impact the health of Lake George – one of the most pristine lakes in Upstate New York’s Adirondack Park? By 2034 environmental scientists will be able to answer that question with a specificity unimaginable even a few decades ago. They’ll also be able to determine the precise impact invasive species and storm water runoff have on the lake’s ecosystem and provide actionable advice about how best to preserve the lake.

The Jefferson Project – a unique interdisciplinary collaboration between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, IBM, and non-profit advocacy group The FUND for Lake George that I am deeply involved with – will provide those answers and will be a global model for future interdisciplinary collaborations in environmental science. The project uses the latest sensing technology, computational models, and big data tools to gain an unprecedented scientific understanding of Lake George – for example, using historical and real-time data in concert with computational models to show exactly how currents move nutrients and contaminants across the 32-mile lake.

By 2034, that project will have produced knowledge that will be used to develop science-based policies to protect and preserve the pristine lake. The project would not be possible without interdisciplinary collaboration between biologists, hydrologists, engineers, computer scientists, ecological economists, and experts in areas like cyber infrastructure and the semantic web.

Several decades ago, environmental scientists had no shortage of important, perplexing questions to tackle, but we did have a shortage of the data and technology necessary to answer them. I spent half a year finding and manually sequencing a single gene, an accomplishment that resulted in a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Today, that work is not only commonplace, it could be done in less than a week.

Ten years ago, technological advancements led to an explosion of data sets like sequenced genomes, but the computing technology and expertise needed to sift through it all had to catch up before that big data could make a big impact. Today, with access to an endless stream of data and the means to analyze it, the intellectual energy that once was devoted to collecting data and developing technology must be redirected toward identifying the most important questions to answer.

The leaders in 2034 will be the scientists who are thoughtful enough to ask the right questions and who effectively use the vast amount of data available and work in interdisciplinary teams to answer those questions. Scientific progress demands collaboration across disciplines both within and outside of the sciences.

In doing this collaborative work it is imperative that all of the parties involved can understand the languages unique to each field. That’s why we must teach our students, who will be leaders in 2034, to understand, work with, and have respect for experts in diverse fields.

In 2034, environmental scientists armed with data and the tools to analyze it and working with colleagues across varied disciplines will be solving the environmental problems that perplex us today.

Sandra Nierzwicki-Bauer is a professor of biology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the director of the Darrin Fresh Water Institute.  Her work has been supported by the National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, National Science Foundation, NASA, and many New York State and local funding agencies.

If you want to make sure that we realize the benefits from this and other scientific advances, let your members of Congress know that federal funding for science matters and should be made a higher national priority. The Science Coalition’s Science Matters toolkit can help you get started.
Categories Environmental Science