Sustainability: Research Challenges for the Math/Computational Sciences

March 15, 2011

In a January 7 "Dear Colleague" letter, the National Science Foundation announced an NSF-wide multiyear program known as SEES (Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability). All 11 of NSF's research directorates and offices are part of the program, which is to run from 2011 through 2015, funded at about $750 million per year. Relatively long-term multidisciplinary projects will probably predominate.

Given the size and scope of the SEES program, prospective contributors might not immediately be aware of connections with their work. Among those stepping in to help in this regard, both for the SIAM community and for the broader community represented by NSF's Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate, is Fred Roberts, longtime director of DIMACS and a member of the MPS Advisory Committee (which he represents, in turn, on the NSF Environmental Science and Engineering Advisory Committee; the latter has played a major role in developments leading to SEES, through preparation of a series of reports available online, such as "Transitions and Tipping Points in Complex Environmental Systems").

From November 15 to 17, 2010, Roberts chaired a workshop, Mathematical Challenges for Sustainability, held at DIMACS, co-sponsored by six mathematical sciences research institutes in the U.S. and Canada, and supported by NSF's Division of Mathematical Sciences. The goal of the workshop was to identify challenges for mathematical scientists wishing to make contributions to the science of sustainability. "There are unprecedented challenges to life on our planet as we know it and a great challenge to define what a sustainable way of life can be," Roberts says. "Mathematical scientists have an important role to play in addressing these challenges." NIMBios director Louis Gross, one of the workshop organizers, mentioned in opening remarks the IUCN/UNEP/WWF definition of sustainability: "improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting eco-systems."

A report summarizing these challenges and opportunities, with recommendations compiled in a session chaired by SAMSI director Richard Smith, will be mailed to math departments in the U.S. and Canada in the near future.

That workshop is one of a series of programs highlighting challenges and opportunities in sustainability research that should be of interest to the SIAM community. A November 2009 workshop, organized by Bill Clark of Harvard and Simon Levin of Princeton, also supported by DMS, resulted in the report "Toward a Science of Sustainability." Roberts credits Clark and Levin with leadership that has helped to spur the rapidly
growing interest in sustainability science on the part of the mathematical sciences community.

Subsequent to the workshop at DIMACS, the NSF Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering Directorate held a workshop on sustainability, February 3–4, 2011. CISE supports the Institute for Computational Sustainability at Cornell, led by computer scientist Carla Gomes.

The worldwide mathematical sciences community is gearing up to work on sustainability. An ambitious international program, initiated in a collaboration of 14 U.S. and Canadian mathematical sciences institutes, is called Mathematics of Planet Earth. Scheduled to commence in 2013, MPE is under the direction of Christiane Rousseau of the University of Montreal.

The SEES program actually began in 2010, under the name Climate Change Initiative, funded at $660 million. Of the five main research areas targeted in that precursor program, earth system models in climate prediction have attracted most of the early attention from mathematical scientists. Through work in data analysis, modeling, simulation, and advanced computation in decision making, Roberts notes, mathematical sciences researchers also have contributions to make in the other four: biodiversity, water sustainability and climate, ocean acidification, and climate change education. Solicitations in all five areas remain open.

In addition to those continuing areas, the SEES program for 2011, as specified in the Dear Colleague letter, emphasizes research on combined energy–environment–society systems, data analysis and visualization, decision support systems, research-enabling observational networks, workforce development, and coupled natural–human systems. (An existing NSF program, Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems, located primarily in the Geosciences, Biological Sciences, and Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) Directorates, supports quantitative interdisciplinary analyses of human and natural systems, processes, and complex interactions among them at diverse scales.)

SEES emphases in the future are likely to include such topics as complex systems and energy. Also of interest will be innovative research modes, such as international networks and collaborations and partnerships with other U.S. agencies. (As described in a more recent (February 1) Dear Colleague letter, the next competition of the Partnerships for International Research and Education Program will focus exclusively on SEES. The goals of PIRE "are to build strong research and education partnerships with foreign collaborators that enable research excellence, provide strong well-mentored international research experiences for U.S. students, and foster the internationalization of U.S. institutions in science and engineering.")

Threaded through SEES is a focus on research directions in SBE that are intimately related to climate change and sustainability---including problems of decision making, human responses, and land use patterns. "There are clearly opportunities for mathematical sciences interconnections here," Roberts says.

SEES is part of a widely ranging network of related national and international programs that together illustrate the importance of the subject. Within NSF, the MPS and Engineering Directorates support substantial work on energy research. Looking outward, NSF is part of the 13-agency U.S. Global Change Research Program, which considers, along with such specific interests as rising sea levels, public health, and agricultural issues, use of the cyberinfrastructure to explore key areas. The Obama administration has made sustainability science an important priority. Office of Management and Budget priorities for 2012, Roberts points out, include reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, managing demands on land, water, and resources for the production of food, and clean energy alternatives. The administration also has a strong interest in metrics for measuring the impact of research.

Details about the workshops, programs, and reports mentioned here are available at the agency and organization websites. Links to the Dear Colleague letters about SEES and associated programs can be found at

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