May 26, 2018
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UM, USM receive $20 million to develop resource-sustainability solutions

By Jessica Bloch, BDN Staff

ORONO, Maine — Remember the destruction caused by the spruce budworm in the 1970s?

What if researchers could predict whether the worm will return, learn how to prevent forestry devastation and teach communities how to deal with the pest?

The University of Maine and University of Southern Maine unveiled Wednesday a wide-reaching new project that officials believe will help Maine communities learn how to sustain their resources in the face of threats such as sprawl, mill closures and the dreaded spruce budworm.

A $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research program will create the Sustainability Solution Initiative, bringing together researchers from UM and USM and other Maine higher education institutions while possibly providing up to 300 jobs.

UM President Robert Kennedy and Gov. John Baldacci introduced the initiative at UMaine’s Wells Conference Center to around 150 people from the campuses and community.

The initiative will be in place this fall and based at UMaine.

Kennedy said the undertaking, which will be led by UMaine’s Sen. George J. Mitchell Center for Environmental and Watershed Research, will “dramatically” affect Maine’s future and is one of the most ambitious education research programs in the state’s history.

Mitchell Center Director David Hart, who will serve as the initiative’s research project director, said the initiative could have an impact beyond the state.

“I don’t make a lot of predictions, but I predict some of the greatest universities in the world will soon be paying close attention to the research team we’ve assembled and the programs we’ve initiated,” he said. “With increased recognition will come even greater external funding, unimagined partnerships, improved solutions and a brighter future for the people of Maine.”

The emerging field of sustainability science is an interdisciplinary, coordinated approach to ways of improving the economy, community and environment, Hart said.

“We just can’t afford to focus on one of these goals at a time,” he added. “We’ve got to get all three right.”

The initiative first will focus on problems related to urbanization, forest management and climate change, touching on issues such as land ownership and mill closures in northern, western and eastern Maine, and urban sprawl in southern Maine.

The challenge will be learning to anticipate issues such as sprawl and the potential return of the spruce budworm.

“We want to learn how to proactively manage and minimize some of the problems,” Hart said after the presentation. “We think we can have a longer-term view so we know what’s headed our way.”

The initiative will connect more than 30 UMaine and USM faculty members from more than two dozen disciplines and departments to a Center for Sustainability Solutions, an umbrella group, which will allow the faculty to perform research and run education, economic and work force development activities in coordination with government and industry experts.

Hart said the interdisciplinary aspect of sustainability science is crucial.

“Most of these problems are inherently multifaceted and interconnected,” he said. “There are very few quick fixes. In trying to fix one part of the problem, you have to be careful that you don’t make other parts worse. So solving these kinds of problems requires a wide range of expertise.”

A Sustainability Solutions Partners Program will link the center to other Maine colleges, universities and community colleges. So far, Hart said, Colby, Bates, Bowdoin and Unity colleges, College of the Atlantic, University of New England, and UM System campuses in Machias and Presque Isle have expressed interest.

The grant also will support positions for research faculty, postdoctoral associates, administration staff and research internships for graduate, undergraduate and high school students throughout the state. Faculty researchers will work with students during the school year.

“Whatever research the professors are involved in, the graduate students get involved in,” said Bangor resident Robb Freeman, a UMaine doctoral student in ecology and environmental science. “The program I’m in is interdisciplinary, and I think this will enable us to tackle these problems in a more interdisciplinary manner.”

Two-thirds of the jobs will be filled by new hires. UMaine will hire three new faculty members and USM will hire one.

Most of the jobs created will be in research fields with some in administrative support roles.

In addition, the grant will fund science, technology, education and mathematics, or STEM, programs for more than 15,000 participants through the Maine STEM Collaborative. It also will be used to upgrade statewide technology infrastructure.

Robert Kates, the 1991 National Medal of Science winner who is an independent scholar and Trenton resident, will serve as an adviser to the project.

Officials also hope to find partners in the community and with government agencies.

John Banks, the director of natural resources for the Penobscot Nation, said the nation has an interest in the program because of its relationship with water — the Penobscot Nation is located on Indian Island in the Penobscot River — and may ask to be involved in the initiative.

“That relationship between people and nature is, to many tribal people, a spiritual thing,” Banks said. “Our culture is thinking long-term and I think the tribal people that are working in this area can add a lot to this project.”

In addition to the EPSCoR funds, UMaine will contribute $1 million per year for five years from its state-supported Maine Economic Improvement Fund Allotment and an additional $1 million per year in in-kind contributions in the form of faculty salaries and use of research facilities.

The EPSCoR program grants money to states that typically receive low levels of federal research funding.

The Advanced Engineered Wood Composite Center, the Laboratory for Surface Science Technology, and the Climate Change Institute are among the UMaine programs that got a boost from EPSCoR funding.

“Each of these initiatives has become a signature nationally recognized program, giving back to the state of Maine in many ways,” Kennedy said. “And I expect that will continue with the program we announced today.”

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