Michael Prather
Michael Prather leads a new institute exploring the increasingly delicate relationship between the environment and society. Daniel A. Anderson / UCI

Last spring, UC Irvine launched a new institute that will bring together scientists to identify new research needed for an improved understanding of society’s response to a changing climate and for environmental science to better respond to societal needs.

Topics to be tackled by the UC Irvine Environment Institute: Global Change, Energy and Sustainable Resources could include how climate change will alter public health and welfare; whether people will accept the living patterns of green cities; or the environmental effects of new energy technologies.

Inaugural director Michael Prather answers questions about the institute:

Q: What are the goals of the new institute?

A: The institute seeks to foster innovative, interdisciplinary research and education on the interaction between the environment and society. The UCI Environment Institute’s title, while quite a mouthful, reflects the complexity of problems that such research must face in the coming decades. There is no single, magic bullet. For example, free solar energy may not be free in terms of the environmental consequences of land-use changes, and it does not directly address the need for natural resources such as fresh water.

Q: Which research areas does the institute focus on?

A: The institute focuses broadly on the environment, including global change, energy and sustainable resources. As new faculty hires and grants enhance the campus’s environmental research, key areas will emerge in which UCI can lead internationally. The institute will build resources for those programs. The overall mission of the institute remains academic research in service to society to preserve the environment and lifestyle of our state, our nation and civil society around the world.

Q: How do you expect this research to affect the public?

A: Initially, the institute will devote its funds to encouraging UCI’s top academic researchers to tackle problems related to environment and society. What the community will see is a more coherent picture of this work through more aggressive, relevant public seminars. As we build community and donor support, we’ll expand the interactions between UCI and the local business and educational communities.

Q: What’s unique about the institute?

A: We recognize the intellectual wealth in our academic community, acknowledge that successful solutions to the environmental and energy-related challenges facing society today go beyond mere technological fixes, and believe that a campus-wide research initiative is the best approach to lasting solutions. Our institute will seek outside support that reaches across the traditional disciplines and schools. It also will seek support for the excellent discipline-oriented research that has brought top academics to UCI. We will develop a systems-engineering approach to solving environmental problems.

Q: Which environmental challenges do you believe are most pressing?

A: The most immediate challenges I see are related to global change, including climate, and are rooted in population growth and lifestyle changes over the 20th century. Global change threatens our climate, fresh water and air quality and promotes land degradation. Until developed countries reform their use of energy, water and natural resources, there will simply not be enough planets for all of us to live on. A key area of research will be to understand how shifting populations and energy use can be sustained.

Q: What can the public do to address these challenges?

A: Decisions by the public should and must be based on scientific understanding of environmental threats and their causes, not personal expediency or political rhetoric. UCI must develop a relationship with the community so that when decisions must be made (e.g., at the ballot box), the public is informed by experts in the field rather than op-ed articles or politicians. In addition to working to find and promote the best knowledge, the public can participate in campus and government events to make this a more sustainable Earth.

Originally published in Vol. 1, Iss. 4 of ZotZine