Energy, Sustainability, and Environment

An overwhelming scientific consensus exists that human activity is having an unintended but predicted negative impact on the global environment. As the accelerating changes in climates are increasingly evident, the ethical necessity of understanding environmental systems and determining potential paths to sustainability has never been clearer. The scientific, technical, and social issues related to climate change are complex, but it is clear that a key driver of environmental change, and hence a challenge to establishing truly sustainable development, is the capture and conversion of energy for society’s needs in a way that respects the rights and interests of future generations.  An emerging academic opportunity lies in integrating scientific advances with changes in social policy to effect changes in the behavior of individuals, communities, and nations. 

SAS is well-positioned to assume a leadership position in this integrative approach to addressing this complex set of global challenges. In Chemistry and Physics it has faculty strength in the study of mechanisms for energy capture and conversion, most notably in spectroscopy, with applications to understanding basic properties of matter, light absorption and emission; catalysis, with applications for photosynthesis and fuel cells; and transport, the study of the flow of electrons through materials and guiding them with nanoscale patterning of materials.  Biology offers expertise in ecology, biodiversity, evolution, and plant science. Earth and Environmental Science explores how the earth’s past and present biological and physical processes impact natural-resource conservation and environmental quality. Through the evolving field of eco-criticism, a growing number of humanists are studying themes in literature and history surrounding humans’ relationship with their natural environment.  Scientific research in this theme is facilitated by a trove of existing research centers at Penn, while several new centers are poised to explore relevant domestic and global policy research.

SAS investments in this area will advance research into new methods for energy capture, storage, and conversion from one form to another by sustainable means; improve scientific inquiry into environmental change and the subsequent adaptations that it causes; increase humanistic and social-scientific study of historical and contemporary perspectives on sustainability; and convert of our deep understanding of these issues into policy proposals that enhance societal energy use and sustainable living. 

A centerpiece of this strategy will be the establishment of a center for energy, sustainability and environment to provide leadership and coordination required to advance research and education in these fields. Although housed in SAS, the center will act as a campus-wide catalyst for efforts that link innovation to impact. The center will establish the highly-skilled technical staff needed to support faculty research in energy and lead a coordinated effort to address infrastructure issues that reside in many of the ESE-aligned science departments. The center will provide a home for shared research on fundamental questions in physics, chemistry, biology, and earth and environmental science pertaining to energy science and ecological impacts. It will lead new initiatives which reveal the extent of environmental perturbation by human activity and extend this knowledge into assessments of the global and local impacts on all forms of life and on human society.  The center will enable a continual dialog between natural science and social science researchers exploring the drivers for decisions on energy use and environmental policy. 

Supporting the integrating goals of the center, we will continue to invest in faculty across the School. These include appointments in Chemistry and in other departments through the Energy cluster. Through our partnership with Engineering in nanoscience, including our new joint Singh Center for Nanotechnology facility, we will build our capability in energy capture, storage and conversion.  We will also build in the areas of evolution, ecology and physiology, creating linkages among all of the natural sciences departments.  We will make appointments in social science departments that address historical and contemporary policy and the ethics of energy production and environmental issues, and in humanities departments to build on our nascent core in eco-criticism.

Establishing curricula coordinated across disciplines to educate the next generation of responsible citizens and leaders will also be a key goal of this initiative. All of the above efforts will benefit our students with the added opportunities they present for learning within our existing programs and through the formation of new courses that cross disciplinary boundaries.  Given the large number of relevant academic programs, the center will have a role to play as a central point of contact to ensure that students maximally benefit from the research opportunities and vast array of curricular options offered on these topics. The erosion of traditional departmental silos for faculty hiring will also increase the number of novel doctoral and post-doctoral opportunities.