Environment

Yale awards nearly $1.5 million for projects seeking ‘planetary solutions’


Yale University has awarded nearly $1.5 million to 21 proposals in its inaugural round of Planetary Solutions Project Seed Grants. The newly established grants support the Yale community’s work in addressing climate change, biodiversity loss, and climate-linked health and justice issues.

The projects will be supported by the Climate Impact Innovation Fund, which was launched in January with an anonymous $15 million donation; by the Gordon Data and Environmental Sciences Research Grants; and by the university. The Seed Grant program will support pilot projects for the next several years.

These proposals demonstrate the breadth of innovative work taking place across Yale,” said Provost Scott Strobel. “And these seed grants are an example of the university’s commitment to amplifying this innovative work, facilitating collaborative impact between Yale’s researchers and scholars. It is exciting to see so much momentum in this effort, especially given the urgency of the environmental challenges they address.”

The broad Planetary Solutions Project framework of “Mitigate, Adapt, and Engage” served as a thematic lodestar for applicants, each of whom addressed one or more of its 10 pillars. Interdisciplinary collaboration is a hallmark across the grantees, with representation from 18 departments across Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) — from economics to psychology, physics to history, mechanical engineering and materials science to ecology and evolutionary biology — and nine professional schools. Some partnerships might bridge adjacent fields, such as chemistry and chemical engineering, allowing investigators to approach their shared knowledge in new ways. Others engage disciplines as disparate as psychiatry, public health, and energy systems to solve multi-faceted problems.

The donors behind the Climate Impact Innovation Fund and the Gordon Data and Environmental Sciences Research Grants are enabling Yale faculty to advance work that is difficult to fund through traditional means,” said Casey R. Pickett, Planetary Solutions Project director. “These collaborators are bringing forward ambitious ideas to understand and address the complex global challenges we face.”

A robust multidisciplinary review

Many of the seed grant proposals grew out of a first call for ideas following an initial Planetary Solutions Project symposium in December 2020. The call was meant to assess the scope of interest in collaborating across departments and schools on major, impact-focused work as part of the Planetary Solutions Project. The ideas helped to spark awareness of work going on around the university and to forge new partnerships.

Those ideas continue to serve as key references for donors seeking to understand the range of possibilities and environmental impact their funding might support.

Each proposal underwent close reading and response from an 18-member committee comprised of faculty and staff with expertise related to the proposals. Applications were reviewed both by subject matter experts, faculty members in related fields, and, in most cases, a cross-disciplinary reader. (Committee members who recognized a conflict of interest with any specific proposal recused themselves from consideration of that project.)

The committee assessed each application using three criteria: first, its potential environmental impact; second, its contributions to scholarship; and third, its use of new and interdisciplinary collaboration to advance prospective solutions,” said Michael Crair, vice provost for research and committee co-chair. “It was immediately clear that this was an extremely impressive application pool.”

Several projects focus on reducing carbon emissions and capturing carbon: through exploring the mechanics of converting carbon dioxide into industrial products, for instance, or advancing the capacity to synthesize methanol from carbon dioxide for liquid fuels. Other projects look at the policy side of carbon emissions, such as modeling Pliocene weather patterns — potentially analogous to projected climate conditions in the near future — to better understand the effects of rising carbon dioxide levels, or developing an accounting tool to track and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the health care supply chain.

Others address the often-interconnected threats of biodiversity loss and impacts on human health, including a proposal partnering epidemiology with mechanical engineering to develop a way to identify emerging diseases among wildlife populations. And still other proposals seek to advance the understanding of environmental threats and solutions, working locally and globally.

These proposals exemplify the ambitions of the Planetary Solutions Project,” said Michael Donoghue, committee co-chair and Sterling Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “They draw on new perspectives and build new collaborations to address some of our most pressing global challenges.”

The university and its supporters share a vision: to wield Yale’s expertise and resources toward solving global problems,” said Strobel. “The Planetary Solutions Project Seed Grant program is an important new step to that end.”

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