Chancellor Douglas A. Girod

Speech: Gray-Little discusses sustainability with Council for Scientific Society Presidents

Monday, April 29, 2013

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to be here today to represent the University of Kansas. I firmly believe that the basic and applied sustainability research at our institution and others around the world is vital to the future of our species and the planet. I believe further that partnerships between academia, government, and industry are necessary. And, I believe that the current structure of funding research may neglect high-risk, high-reward projects. I concur with many of the comments made by my colleagues on this panel and I look forward to discussing these issues with all of you.

But I want to point out something. All of us here fundamentally understand that human beings, both as individuals and as communities, have a dynamic relationship with our planet. And all of us here readily understand the connection between our research and the future of humanity. For example, the breadth and depth of sustainability research and activities going on at KU are extensive and important. Three examples stand out for their potential for positive impact on our world: Turning plants into industrial chemicals that are typically made from petroleum; using advanced computational algorithms to understand and predict how we human beings interact with our ecosystem; and predicting how drought and land use are impacting and will impact life across the Central Plains. From the few words of description I gave, these research foci are readily understood by this audience. 

However, the biggest hurdles to progress are education and effective communication. I applaud all educators and policy-makers who are working to get the fundamental tenets of sustainability infused throughout our curriculum and our institutions, not simply as an add-on or an elective. This task of educating all of us is of paramount importance, is ongoing, and is difficult. It should be addressed not only in colleges as we are doing our new curriculum, but also in high schools and elementary schools. Students should learn basic concepts and techniques of sustainability just as they learn that it is important to wash their hands.

I want to talk a bit about that second hurdle -- effective communication. Effective communication is invaluable in advancing the sustainability science agenda -- particularly when there is so much mis-education about climate change, ecosystem dynamics, land use, etc.  Effective communication requires understanding the frame of mind of your audience. To be clear, I am not talking about political "spin" or "dumbing down" research, but rather suggesting that all of us -- both leaders of institutions that are committed to a sustainable future and the researchers who often spend their entire careers devoted to this work -- that all of us take every opportunity to acknowledge the utility of the status quo: why we are so comfortable doing what we currently do.

I have spent my own career as a  psychologist pursuing research on family dynamics -- research that has no direct link to sustainability science. So for me, learning about sustainability as an outsider has made it easier to understand the difficulties of influencing public opinion.

Conversations surrounding sustainability science often begin with the immediacy of the negative impacts of conventional practices and the promise of new technologies and new techniques to ameliorate our situation, and forecasts of dire consequences if we do not change. But I think we've missed a tremendous opportunity when we begin the conversation in this way. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of such an approach depends on the vagaries of the news cycle and on the personal experiences of the audience.

Here's what I mean -- most people do not think about sustainability on a regular basis. Most of us do not wake up every day thinking that we are on the cusp of environmental calamity. Most people have never spent much time thinking critically how they individually may be changing our planet. Most of us do not speak in terms of climate forcing, ecosystem dynamics, or the pervasiveness of endocrine disrupting chemicals...even for those non-scientists who already support our collective work, the magnitude of the problem, the complexity of the earth's systems, the difficulty of changing minds across the globe -- the status quo can seem like an inexorable path.

So what happens...the framework that we tend to use -- focusing on negative impacts and their solution -- more often than not overwhelms, alienates, or paralyzes those whom this work seeks to benefit.

Whenever possible, we should begin our conversations with the utility of the status quo. There is great utility in laundry detergent. There is utility in being able to get to work -- and vacation. There is utility in healthiness. There is utility in a beautiful landscape. There is utility in potable water from the tap. Everyone understands these concepts and, to be fair, it is this utility that motivates our research.

Allow me to return to those KU examples to illustrate what I mean. The Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis is developing clean technologies to convert biomass into chemicals that could ultimately replace the petroleum-based chemicals currently used in many household items. Ultimately, we're working to make better shoes, better paint, better food packaging -- and as a woman who has spent much of her career on her feet, I can tell you that it's very difficult to argue against better shoes. So what do we mean by "better"? We mean shoes with all the utility of your current pair, fewer droughts than the path we're on, the potential for better jobs in Kansas, and the possibility of a foreign policy less influenced by OPEC. Who wouldn't want to buy those shoes?

Scientists at KU's Biodiversity Institute developed Ecological Niche Modeling which uses advanced computational algorithms and Geographic Information Systems to model the ecological niche of species of animals and plants. One goal of this research is to make better decisions on how and where our cities and farms grow. Again, what do we mean by "better" decisions? We mean all the utility of urban life and abundant food while fighting human diseases, building resilient agriculture systems, and endangering fewer species.

Finally, KU, working with Kansas State University, Emporia State University and Wichita State University, is working on a project to link and integrate the data and modeling regimes for climate change, land use patterns, biodiversity, energy, ecosystem health, social systems and water into one, powerful predictive engine for informing sustainability practices and policies across the Central Plains and Kansas. Here, we are seeking a better future for water in the Central Plains. However, unlike the other examples, the immediacy of this problem is readily understood by our population because water scarcity is already part of the general consciousness. As a result, we have broad support for this kind of work.

The environmental challenges we face are daunting. But, through the combined efforts of all of our institutions, we do have the capacity to understand and overcome those challenges. In addition to supporting the science, those of us in leadership positions need to support general sustainability education and effective communication of the importance of sustainability science to ensure that "sustainability science" becomes the status quo of the future.

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Chancellor's Vision

The mission of the University of Kansas is to lift students and society by educating leaders, building healthy communities, and making discoveries that change the world.

We will do that by raising the expectations we have for ourselves, the aspirations we have for our state, and the hopes we have for our world.