The Stanford Challenge: A New Approach to Environmental Problems

I think that the oceans are in trouble. Top predator populations have declined dramatically since the rise of industrial fishing. Large-scale trawling activities have completely clearcut large areas of the sea floor. And part of the problem is that the general public isn’t even aware of it, because it’s so difficult to see what’s actually happening underwater. I knew that I wanted to work in India, which is my home country. I knew I wanted to work in water. And I knew I wanted to work in water in an urban context. When I was starting my research, the city that I’m now working in–which is my case study area–was in the throes of a major drought. The pipe supply system was shut down. So you have a city of six million people with no pipe supply. How did the city get in such a mess? Is it going to happen again? And can we do anything to solve it? One of the most important challenges we face is that of global climate change. With fairly high confidence, the climate has changed. And we’re going to see significant climate changes in the future. But there’s a huge range of potential futures we’re going to see! The goal of my research is to help better understand the uncertainty in future climate change, and to better quantify the risks. EIPER is the interdisciplinary graduate program on the environment. It’s absolutely central to the environmental initiative at Stanford. And it’s growing. It’s been tremendously successful. We have 30 students enrolled in the Ph.D. program. They’re going off to wonderful careers in academia, in government, in the nonprofit sector and with other sort of major institutions. From the beginning, the idea was to span all schools at the University. The School of Earth Sciences has taken the lead in this and supported EIPER in many ways. But we really do cover the whole campus. I knew that I would have disciplinary depth. But I also knew that by that structure it would give me access to faculty all over campus. It is challenging! You have to be able to define your problem and then go and seek faculty that would support it. The student gets the opportunity to be the leader; and not the other way around. A lot of the major policymakers and people that are influencing current policies, both in California and worldwide, are people that are housed right at Stanford. And so having access to that sort of expertise I think is why I chose Stanford, and why Stanford is probably one of the best places in the world to start to approach these environmental problems. The vision of EIPER is to cultivate a new kind of leader. Someone who is exceptionally good at sort of thinking and problem-solving, and who at the same time is oriented around the big challenges facing society today. Some of the frameworks I draw from are from engineering. Risk analysis is something that we’ve been doing for decades–when we build a nuclear plant. I’ve also spent a lot of time in the Law School learning from the policymakers’ perspective. What they want to know is “local impact” and this ” likelihood component”. I can tell them that there is a small chance that [blank] might happen. Do they need to be planning for this? Should they be using taxpayers’ dollars to build infrastructure to plan around this? The real strength of EIPER is that you have to gain an expertise in at least two very different fields of study. And for me that was Economics and Marine Ecology. So now when I go out there and find these complex issues, I’ m able to really break down the problem and then figure out which types of policy tools are most appropriate to match the situation. Finding simplicity out of complexity is the challenge I think that EIPER students enjoy and like to face. And I think that’s what motivated me. When you look at the world’s biggest problems and ask what we most need to overcome them, it’s leadership. It’s people with the vision, the capacity intellectually, and the resources. And EIPER is designed to deliver on that.

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