Todd Woodman


By reviewing the landscape of our environmental research efforts – university wide institutes, college centers and other transdisciplinary initiatives and programs – UA has a unique opportunity to further advance its historic leadership, accelerate our growth in external funding and deepen the impact of UA’s environmental research.


Transdisciplinary research excellence – the true seamless integration of across disciplinary university-community boundaries - is an undergirding fundamental philosophy and approach at the University of Arizona, deeply rooted in our history that defines our university. As a preeminent AAU, Carnegie Research I university with a longstanding, strong core disciplinary base in departments/colleges, our transdisciplinarity is reflected primarily in cross-cutting organizational structures of university-wide and college-level research institutes and centers that bring together and connect our outstanding environmental faculty to tackle the world’s grand challenges, seamlessly incorporating the expertise and needs from Arizona communities, industry, and government stakeholders. Other less formally defined programs and initiatives serve a similar purpose around smaller scale or more temporally defined opportunities. Why does this transdisciplinary approach matter? It is our hallmark strategy to adapt to, and in some cases direct, changes in dynamic environmental research needs and opportunities in science and society.

UA’s footprint in environmental research is large – including hundreds of faculty with diverse disciplinary backgrounds appointed in multiple departments across many colleges, many of whom are also affiliated (to varying degrees) with both university- and college- level research institutes and centers, and other less formally defined initiatives or programs. The scope of inquiry in environmental topics of our research institutes/centers/ initiatives/programs is diverse and “grassroots”, with varying degrees of overlap, alignment, organization and/or intentional coordination – to list just a few examples, water security and reuse; water policy; sustainable development; climate change; land use and food security; renewable energy; resource extraction; biodiversity and conservation ecology; remote sensing; environment and health; international policy; law. From one perspective, this unaligned diversity may be a distinctive strength, creating advantageous synergy that enables rapid, dynamic and fluid responsiveness to the full variety of opportunities. From another perspective, this unaligned diversity may diffuse our strength, adding unnecessary chaos and internal competition that may detract from success. With assets that include preeminent basic, applied, and translational researchers, land grant/extension mission, strong engineering programs, and two medical schools, UA is uniquely poised to increase even further the impact of our environmental research by considering this diversity in light of the “landscapes” that shape our context.

The internal “landscape” of our UA environmental research efforts is ever evolving, as the hiring of each new faculty member brings new interests, skills, and needs to our university that by design affect our faculty corpus and concomitant scopes of inquiry. Furthermore, the concurrent hiring of multiple faculty in Strategic or Cluster mechanisms that are intentionally designed to cohere around a theme to spawn new multi-individual, larger scale research initiatives accelerates these changes. Faculty associated with existing Centers/Institutes develop a history of shared collaboration and see value in greater connection to tackle larger-scale challenges. These collaborations, in turn help to better define more focused research topics that both drive and respond to changing agency priorities. Signature facilities with specialized equipment (e.g., Water, Energy & Sustainable Technology Center, WEST) or capabilities (e.g., Biosphere 2) are highly visible and “one-of-a-kind”, and provide new leveraging opportunities for distinction and success for the UA.

The external “landscape” of funding support to advance environmental research also is changing. The US has new executive and congressional representation with differing priorities, coupled with the international community even more committed to moving forward with tenets of the Paris Climate Accord, without formal US participation. Arizona’s delegation has a long history of independent thinking and progressive, research-informed action to advance sustainable stewardship of our scarce resources, complemented by numerous community organizations that advocate for change. Foundations and other philanthropists are becoming more engaged in these national debates, with the likelihood of increased funding opportunities. At the UA, the Agnes Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice is one exciting example, which helps to connect UA researchers with community needs to catalyze increased social impact.

Finally, the inquiry “landscape” of the methods used in environmental research continues to expand. “Big Data” science has moved beyond just modeling and simulation, and has revolutionized the conduct of environmental science. Transdisciplinary co-production of research connects us with new communities and engages a greater range of diverse stakeholders, including indigenous peoples under self-governance or other jurisdictions, all of which offer opportunities for deep impact and require specific approaches. The integration of observational, experimental, stakeholder-engaged and data-intensive discovery, as well as the near term promise for translation in economic development, social action and policy offers substantial new opportunities. Together, this convergence is prompting additional consideration of how to optimize support for our faculty researchers with a greater diversity of methodologies, approaches and paradigms.


To this end, this UA Environmental Research Landscape Review convenes a widely-representative set of faculty who vary by discipline, department/college, role, research approach, and career stage who are charged to:

  1. Consider the UA landscape of environmental research Institutes, Centers, initiatives and programs, with particular attention to the disorganized diversity of the respective scopes regarding duplicative/synergistic overlap, transparency/clarity/consistency, and degree of alignment with their attendant externally funded projects/programs,
  2. Build on faculty input, especially from the university-wide Research Roadmap strategic planning process, and other fora,
  3. Review the external funding context, opportunities and priorities of:
    • Federal agencies (particularly with respect to multi-investigator, transdisciplinary programs),
    • Private foundations and philanthropy,
    • International sources of support,
  4. Analyze the varied efforts to efficiently connect and effectively organize our engagement with identified communities, key stakeholders, and indigenous peoples,
  5. Consider strategic partnerships with one or more external institutions that could leverage or extend UA capabilities,
  6. Identify “lessons” from peer and other universities that might be productively adapted for benefit,
  7. Reflect on opportunities, strategic directions and funding that the UA is uniquely poised to address and realize,
  8. Recommend and define organizational structure for our UA research institutes/centers/initiatives/ programs (e.g., maintain status quo vs. a single umbrella entity at the two heuristic ends; or endless variations in between of separate institutes/centers/initiatives programs each with clearly identified scopes of inquiry) that:
    • broadens and deepens UA’s environmental research impact,
    • heightens the visibility of UA’s excellence in environmental research
    • optimizes transdisciplinary collaborations across departments and colleges
    • enables UA faculty to successfully realize new, and to sustain existing, external opportunities that generate additional resources to fund our environmental research efforts.
    • effectively organizes our engagement with communities, stakeholders, and indigenous peoples
    • leverages our distinctive facilities, capabilities, range of approaches, and signature programs or projects.
  9. Describe action steps and/or processes to be undertaken to achieve the recommendations.

Joaquin Ruiz, Dean of the College of Science, Director of Biosphere 2 and VP for Innovation has agreed to chair the Environmental Research Landscape Review. Dr. Ruiz has been charged to deliver a report to the Senior Vice President of Researcg by February 15, 2018 that addresses this charge with recommendations, rationale, and action steps. The SVPR will review and disseminate this report, and gain input from and work collaboratively with faculty and leadership in implementation.


Although there are opportunities to gain other transdisciplinary synergies through review of our environmentally-oriented curricula and degree programs, and there certainly is some degree of overlap with research issues, the resultant products of such a review are quite distinct from this UA Environmental Research Landscape Review, particularly as departments/colleges are the units that offer educational degree programs, where scope of inquiry of a center or unit is oriented to individual members that cut across departments and colleges. Thus, the scope of this UA Environmental Research Landscape Review does not include curricula or degree programs. Provost Comrie has previously stated plans to convene the pertinent parties to address opportunities regarding environmentally-oriented curricula and degree programs at a later date. The UA Environmental Research Landscape Review also is not designed to evaluate, in the sense of an APR, any particular research institute or center. The University of Arizona has an established process for the periodic review, establishment and reauthorization of university research institutes and centers (URIC): In short, the Periodic Review process for university-wide research institutes or centers include a self-study and evaluation by external reviewers, an ensuing report, and leadership response – with an overall orientation towards the future and what steps the university might consider to strengthen the impact of an individual institute/center within the scope of its inquiry. The completed UA Environmental Research Landscape Review will then frame the future periodic reviews for any environmental research institutes or centers. The periodic reviews of IE and the Udall Center for Public Policy Studies are already planned to commence after this UA Environmental Research Landscape Review is completed


Environmental Research Landscape Review Members


Name                                  Email

Adam Henry            

Anna Spitz                

Brian Mayer             

Chris Scott               

Connie Woodhouse

Dan Ferguson          

Dave Breshears       

Ellen McMahon      

Eric Betterton         

Joaquin Ruiz            

Kacey Ernst              

Kim Ogden               

Kirsten Engel           

Lynn Nadel              

Neal Armstrong      

Parker Antin            

Pete Reiners            

Raina Maier             

Rod Wing                 

Shannon Heuberger

Sharon Megdal       

Stuart Marsh           

Tom Meixner           

Xubin Zeng