George Mason University

News at Mason

Mason's Sustainability Institute to drive research, offer solutions

December 11, 2018   /   by Damian Cristodero

George Mason University’s new Sustainability Institute is envisioned as a transdisciplinary undertaking with faculty from all academic units engaging in research and scholarship that is focused on understanding complex environmental and social problems and offering solutions to communities under stress.

A Nov. 30 charrette at Mason’s Potomac Science Center, which featured 72 faculty members, was the first opportunity to discuss and refine the institute’s mission and define concrete next steps.

“It was a really great example of faculty engagement toward a common purpose coming from a lot of different disciplines and points of view,” said Aurali Dade, Mason’s associate vice president for research development, integrity and assurance.

Participants at the charrette discussed a possible structure in which the institute focuses on specific areas every few years, such as the interrelationships between water, food and energy, sustainable production and consumption, urbanization, preservation and the establishment of peaceful societies.

The institute will also endeavor to identify and overcome the cultural, economic, institutional and political barriers to transformative sustainability solutions and actively recruit and engage outside stakeholders—such as federal agencies, NGOs and corporations—in identifying and solving their issues.

“This institute,” said University Professor Andrew Light, “has to be more of a ‘do tank’ than a think tank.”

It is a broad and challenging agenda, but one that Mason President Ángel Cabrera said the university is well positioned to tackle, with faculty already deeply invested in the effort.

The university is investing as well, with $500,000 in seed money. The institute plans to be up and running in February or March.

“We have the responsibility as a university—that wants to be a university for the world—to focus on these areas of real consequence,” Cabrera said in his opening remarks. “If this is not among our top priorities, I don’t know what area should be.”

Attendees split into seven discussion groups to identify sustainability issues to be addressed, Mason’s institutional advantages in tackling those issues and the challenges that could keep the university from fully taking advantage of its strengths and connections.

The conversation then continued in an open forum.

The institute’s primary mission, it was agreed, is to connect research to action, create a safe haven for stakeholders to solve difficult problems and implement complex policy solutions, and to communicate to the public through storytelling, the media and a “passionate leader.”

A consensus also arose that Mason’s campuses should be an example of what can be accomplished through a commitment to sustainability and resilience and how actions successfully implemented can be shared with regionally, statewide, nationally and even globally.

Professor Jim Kinter, director of Mason’s Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies, suggested Mason reaffirm its commitment to be carbon neutral by 2050. Sara Cobb, a professor in the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, stressed that “the brilliance of this institute won’t be just the content of our expertise but the relationships we could establish with stakeholders around real problems.”

The institute should also be inclusive of Mason’s students, whom the faculty agreed will bring enthusiasm and gain from the interdisciplinary experience and multidisciplinary research.

“The charrette demonstrated our faculty’s deep commitment to shape a just, flourishing and sustainable world in these times of significant global change,” said Deb Crawford, Mason’s vice president for research.

Light—who, while at the U.S. State Department, was as a senior member of the delegation that negotiated the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change—said, “I was not expecting us to get as far down the road as we did with a basic thematic structure  for the institute and an agreement on what we want the institute to accomplish and what we want Mason to be known for in terms of helping communities get real, concrete solutions to their problems.

“If we can build on that and make this institute serve those interests, then we have something.”