Facilitating ecological research to meet the environmental problem-solving needs of the 21st century
The nature and history of universities have created several impediments to environmental problem solving. First, ecology and environmental science and engineering programs are typically distributed across multiple departments and colleges, resulting in physical separation of researchers, and unproductive clashes between academic cultures. Second, student enrollments in ecology and environmental science are relatively small, and jobs within the environmental and ecology sector are scarce; these are disincentives for university investment. Third, there has been a long-standing tension between basic ecological research versus applied fields of ecology, agriculture and natural resource management. Using Clemson University as a model, I explore how ecology and environmental programs, and their success in positioning the institution to be a problem solver for the 21st century, have been influenced by the history of university structures, student interest in majors, the vision and academic background of administrators, and relationships between ecology, engineering, agriculture and natural resource science.
Ecology research at Clemson has ebbed and flowed through time with a recent upswing in work oriented toward environmental problem solving. Clemson - a public Land-grant University started in 1889 - reached comprehensive university status in the 1970s, a time when student interest in the environment peaked. Since then, repeated state budget reductions forced a major restructuring that reduced the number of colleges from 9 to 4. Many re-organizations have followed, often creating culture clashes and reduced support for research in ecology and environmental science. Student interests declined since the 1970s, but partially recovered to a steady state. Agriculture and natural resource fields declined precipitously, but have recently started a recovery, much of it focused on environmental issues and involving collaborations with engineers and biologists. Since 2010, increased national and local interest in sustainability, organic farming, and renewable energy sources, have brought together environmentally-related research disciplines, and increased opportunities for funding. The nexus of these trends and the long history of academic re-organization, which ultimately enhanced interdisciplinary work, have suddenly placed environmental research in a strong position for success at Clemson. From this history, it is clear that national social and economic factors, university structure, and the training and vision of academic leaders are among the strongest drivers of environmental research. Academic administrators can enhance success by incentivizing interdisciplinary research and nurturing a campus-wide culture of research.