Director’s Almanac

One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring. —Aldo Leopold

Hi there! Welcome to what I plan to be a regular blog post from the me, the Institute on the Environment‘s Director, containing things on my mind, stuff I’m up to, and miscellaneous stuff that has me jazzed at IonE, the U and elsewhere.

Why read it? Maybe because you have time to kill. Maybe because you’re wondering how my weird mind works. Or maybe you’re just so committed to IonE that you can’t read enough about it. I welcome your feedback about the value of this blog, topics it covers or if you might like to write a guest post. So here we go!


APRIL 2018

This month I’m back from the Natural Capital Project’s annual symposium. A whole crew of IonE folks make the trek to Stanford University each year to give talks, meet collaborators, host workshops and network with ecosystem service practitioners from around the world. I did too.

At the symposium, The Nature Conservancy’s Mark Tercek reminded attendees that great science is essential to getting natural capital on the books in every country and company around the world. When we put our best science about natural capital up against other considerations (like profit and cost), it won’t sway every decision – but it will more often than not.

My part of the symposium was a panel (with leaders from Stanford, the University of Washington, TNC, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) that addressed the role of academic scientists in real-world decision-making – something that has been on my mind a lot lately. I talked about how important it is for scientists to find common ground with the public so that we can earn and keep a space at the table of decision-making, about taking responsibility for finding solutions in our research, and about moving faster, to better match the pace of real-world decisions. All of these things are alive at IonE, and we have plans to grow and expand in each of these areas.

The IonE community has impact in the world, and this month several of our people and projects were recognized publicly for their transformative work. This summer, IonE Associate and Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology prof Laura Dee will receive the Ecological Society of America’s Innovation in Sustainability Science Award – for a paper she led that asked “To What Extent Can Ecosystem Services Motivate Protecting Biodiversity?”

As the ecosystem services approach I mention above takes root, Laura and her co-authors studied its effectiveness at preserving biodiversity. They found that a focus on ecosystem services won’t always do a good job of conserving species diversity in an ecosystem, so that additional species will need attention. As Laura said: “The framework we developed balances the currents costs of protecting species with the future risk of losing ecosystem services. In this way, we can determine the optimal number of species to protect.”

Meanwhile, Ellen Anderson, director of IonE’s Energy Transition Lab, was named a “critical collaborator” for 2018 by the Environmental Initiative. In the nomination letter we wrote for Ellen, Fresh Energy’s Michael Noble offered this perspective: “No single public sector leader has had more influence on Minnesota’s success as a clean energy leader than Ellen Anderson.” Wow.

And just a couple of weeks ago, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released four landmark reports – years in the making – assessing the global state of biodiversity. These reports were a collaboration among 550 scholars, including IonE affiliates Jeannine Cavender-Bares (CBS), Forest Isbell (CBS), Laura Dee (CFANS), Lee Frelich (CFANS), Susan Galatowitsch (CFANS0, and Kate Brauman (IonE), among other University of Minnesota contributors. (Kate was making waves at the Natural Capital Symposium too: From the podium, Mark Tercek called out her work to put the best numbers we can on the social and ecological value of clean water.)

This recognition–and other current events in the world– have me thinking about my own motivations, my reason to get out of bed each morning. Different parts of the IonE community have different reasons, but I decided recently that I get up in service to the 10 percent of biodiversity that experts think could be go extinct due to climate change in the next several decades. Ten percent is a relatively conservative estimate, and if our estimates of global biodiversity are right, it amounts to 900,000 species! (And that doesn’t count declines in ecosystem health or other change in biodiversity.) If we are going to craft effective strategies for stemming that loss, we need to know who those species are, why they are sensitive and what corrective actions can be taken. The answers to those questions lie in smarter habitat management, new ideas like managed relocation, and building an economy that incentivizes the natural capital that houses the life on earth. Being in service to those 900,000 is not just about aesthetics and a moral duty to other creatures. It’s about sustaining the life on earth that sustains ourselves. I think that’s a good reason to put my feet on the floor each morning.

What’s your reason?

In planetary prosperity,


P.S.  I hope you’ll join me at a Minnesota Public Radio event on the evening of April 26 at the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul. MPR’s Climate Cast, hosted by Paul Huttner, will host a live event called “Climate Heroes.” I’ll share the stage with Minnesota climate legend Mark Seeley and US Water Alliance’s Radhika Fox. I can’t wait.

MARCH 2018

I’ve heard people say that March is the snowiest month in Minnesota. It turns out that’s not true – or no longer true now that the climate is changing. So spring – now earlier than it was historically – is truly around the corner.

This month I’d like to share some thoughts I recently shared at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advance of Science, the world’s largest general scientific organization. The AAAS annual meeting is a place where new, cutting-edge research is revealed to the public and where scientific leaders talk about the role of science in society.

The ideas in my talk are ideas at the heart of IonE: How do we build an academy that is ready, willing and rewarded for serving the public good? At AAAS, I argued that we need to get academic environmental scientists outside of their traditional modes and mindsets – and I showed how the University of Minnesota is leading that transition. What follows is an adapted version of what I had to say – and, as always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback.


Society is experiencing unprecedented environmental change – and we need science to make sense of these changes and help us decide what to do about them. It follows directly from this need that academic scientists have a duty to help society survive, and even thrive, in the face of these profound environmental changes.

Despite this broad duty to the common good, the language we – scientists – use to talk about environmental change reveals a lot about how we tend to see the role of science in society.

First, we love to emphasize that science delivers facts. That’s absolutely true: After all, CO2 is a greenhouse gas. But that’s just a fact. But a lot of what the world needs from science – and a lot of what science can and should deliver – isn’t about simple facts.

We also focus on describing impacts: the bad things that happen when the environment changes. Our journals are full of talk about vulnerability, as a measure of risk yet to come. And we prioritize conservation – that is, keeping things as they were. These words emphasize the negative and revere the past.

But now think about some other words: prosperity, freedom, stewardship, and equity. These are things that voters, policy-makers, and students want – and we need science to help us get there. When scientists work toward these things – when we put these kinds of words at the center of our work – we share core values with the public and help create a positive future.

For example, scientists can measure the risk of climate change to biodiversity. Experts expect that 900,000 species could go extinct this century due to climate change. But the methods that estimate risk can also be used to make recommendations about smart climate change adaptation, such as landscapes that promote species migration or urban environments that are climate resilient and embrace biodiversity (like this group and this map).

In principle, there’s nothing preventing academics in the environmental sciences from engaging in forward-looking research – research that tells us not only how the world is but what it can and should be. Some fields – such as engineering and agronomy – already do. But many fields are focused more on assessment than solutions. We can do better.

At the Institute on the Environment, we believe there are some essential ingredients to building an academia that better serves the common good. As a mission-driven, interdisciplinary organization focused on innovation in research and leadership, we take our duty very seriously – to the University of Minnesota, to our fellow Minnesotans, and to the world.

Here are six things we are doing now – and are working to do better every day:

We need to foster academics who take responsibility not just for diagnosing problems but also for offering tangible solutions. At IonE, we do this by funding research that includes solutions in study plans and designs, right from the start. (For example: We’re very proud of our recent grants on water sustainability.)

We need to put people in the center of research about the environment. Scientists might think they study biophysical processes, but it’s people – with values and beliefs – who make decisions about the environment. At IonE, we made this orientation an explicit part of our mission: We lead the way toward a future in which people and planet prosper together.

We should embrace – not fear – public scrutiny. At IonE, we are working to seed public engagement earlier in to the research process, incentivizing co-creation over outreach after the fact (like this recent work with the Minnesota state government).

We must move faster. All of our stakeholders and constituents want us to. At IonE, we’re developing a new model for rapidly spinning up teams that can complete collaborative research – solving partners’ problems – within nine to 12 months. (Stay tuned for more news on this front!)

We have to provide training about listening to and working with stakeholders. Some of the folks that need the most training (and for whom the least support is available) are our most esteemed researchers. At IonE, we work to lift up our whole community – from faculty fellows to undergraduate students – through workshops and peer mentoring.

We need boundary organizations within academia. It takes time and talent to get outside the university, and we need to make it easier for our best researchers to do that. One way we make these connections at IonE is through convenings put practitioners in direct collaboration with researchers.


I’ll be sticking to these six points in other talks this year – and leading by example is one of the most important ways we create a different way of doing. In honor of the season of rebirth (spring!), we are working toward continual rebirth of the academy itself. Onward!

Want to learn more? You can read more about ideas related to the six points above in this paper led by IonE’s Bonnie Keeler and in a series of three blogsthat colleagues and I wrote for Nature magazine a few years ago.

In planetary prosperity,




Other than kid pick-up, the training plan for my next half marathon and what the family is going to have for dinner tonight, my interest and attention is divided among a few different topics right now.

First, a few things that made my heart swell at IonE this past month…

Congrats to Kate Brauman (one of our IonE lead scientists) and Steve Polasky (an IonE Fellow), who are co-authors on a new paper, published in Science, which advances our definition and understanding of ecosystem services and the value of nature to people to include indigenous and local perspectives, and a wider range non-material benefits. This paper is just one more example of the importance of our institute’s mission: to lead the way to a future where people and planet prosper together. The paper grew out of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Speaking Science was inspiring and fun! IonE was a lead organizer, with the College of Science and Engineering and the College of Biological Sciences, of a day-long communications conference on January 11 for faculty and research staff, plus some lucky post-docs and grad students. The afternoon breakouts were based on our Boreas Leadership Program workshops. Here’s an awesome piece of feedback we heard from one participant: “Overall, it was one of the best trainings/events I have been to in my career.”

And just this past Friday, IonE hosted another Sustainability Education Summit, an outgrowth of the IonE Educators program. The summits include participants from a range of disciplines and are digitally co-hosted on all five UMN campuses, which allows people to connect widely and share best practices in teaching and innovation in sustainability.

With my IonE leadership hat on…

Those of you who have direct connections to the University of Minnesota may know that we’ve embarked on an ambitious capital campaign. For my part – for IonE’s part – I’ve been working to make fundraising a priority for my time and attention each week. Jan Gerstenberger and I are working together to make meaningful connections with more individuals who share our mission and vision.

Individual philanthropy is a key ingredient of fundraising in higher education, but it’s not something IonE has prioritized in past. The great news is that we had growing success with individual giving at the end of 2017 – and I’m so proud that IonE staff and affiliates were among the contributors. Thank you!

I’m also thinking a lot about strategy. In short: Now that we have celebrated turning 10, we have an opportunity to define – together – what our next decade will hold. I’m confident that IonE has the right ingredients for success in our culture and values. We also have the right people. I also recognize that our community has grown and changed in the past 10 years, as has the world – and we have an opportunity to be clearer and more concise about our goals.

Right now I’m strongly influenced by a Harvard Business Review article that asks: “Can you say what your strategy is?” It argues that everyone in an organization should be explain its strategy in 35 words or less. I want us to get there. We will get there.

As always, I also do some research…

This past week I’ve been helping manage a paper arising from a former PhD student that was accepted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It’s a cool paper: We studied thousands of butterflies collected in the 1980s and compared them to thousands we collected in the late 2000s, using genomic techniques to see how climate change has affected a zone of interbreeding between two related species. We found that the zone where the two species hybridize has moved: It’s shifting north. And the amount the hybrid zone has moved corresponds to the amount that the climate has warmed.

Why should anyone care? Because climate change is molding and changing life on Earth – and we have to know how before we can design management techniques to stop or slow it. (Of course, you’ll want to read the full paper when it comes out  – yes, you will want to! – so I’ll be sure to include the link in a future blog post.)

I’m also teaching this term with Rebecca Montgomery (another one of our IonE Fellows) and Leslie Brandt, a weekly seminar about climate change adaptation for natural resources. We have about 30 participants and will be working our way through species vulnerability assessments, to climate projection data, to economic assessment of impacts, and ways of building new management strategies that account for climate change. I’m excited about it.

Finally, like the rest of you, I keep an eye on the rest of the world…

Right now, I’m reading about Greek philosophy and the origin of the academy – related to some thinking I’m doing about how IonE is, at its heart, a modern version of the power of inquiry and discussion to bring about wisdom. Feeling smarter as a result.

I’m also still feeling frustrated about last week’s news that tariffs will be added to imported solar panels. The decision is expected to increase solar prices, just as solar is beginning to be price-competitive with coal and natural gas. Think: fewer solar projects, fewer solar jobs. And the U.S. needs, desperately, to increase solar energy production to save ourselves and our future. Would our government put tariffs on other things Americans really need? Life-saving drugs? Medical equipment?


Now with very tired fingers, that’s enough for one post! Please let me know what you think of this blog – and I’ll give it another shot in the coming weeks.

In planetary prosperity,


P.S. Have you ever wondered: Why sign off with planetary prosperity? It reflects our mission statement, and it’s truly what I want. I want to be happy and to do well, and I want other living things to prosper too.

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