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Q&A: David M. Lodge on Atkinson Center priorities, impacts

David M. Lodge, an internationally recognized conservation biologist, recently began his tenure as the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Here, he talks to the Cornell Chronicle’s Blaine Friedlander about his priorities in the coming year and how the center’s research and partnerships are making an impact around the world.

David Lodge at creek

Robert Barker/University Photography
David Lodge, the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

Welcome to Cornell. What will be your focus or initial priorities leading the Atkinson Center?

I am so fortunate to inherit the leadership of such a dynamic center that is so strongly supported by loyal Cornellians like David ‘60 and Patricia Atkinson, and has been so successfully led since its inception by Professor Frank DiSalvo, of chemistry and chemical biology, who has just retired. My focus is to build on that superb legacy of excellence in research and its application. We will continue to invest in understanding the interconnections among natural systems, the built environment, economic systems, and human behavior, culture and communication. We will also invest even more on working with partners who can help shape, support and apply Cornell research.

Because of the Atkinson Center, there will be fewer trade-offs between economic development and environmental health. Humans will thrive in the future. I am thrilled to have the privilege of facilitating the work on sustainability of the incredibly talented and dedicated faculty and students across the sciences, engineering, social sciences, arts and humanities at Cornell.

Your own research involves invasive species and our world is inundated with unnatural invaders. How can the Atkinson Center help to resolve complicated, sticky problems like invasive species?

Early in my career, ecologists were fond of saying everything is connected to everything else. In today’s modern world, we realize it’s not just the connections within nature that are important – it’s people, economies and natural systems that are all connected across the planet far more frequently and faster than ever before.

When I see a ship, for example, I think not only of the food and goods it delivers, but also of the pathogens, parasites and other harmful organisms that may be hitchhiking in the ballast water – or the insects or reptiles that may be stowing away on the ship’s containers.

Globalization – or global trade – brings many benefits but also often negative trade-offs if we don’t anticipate and manage side effects appropriately. At Cornell, I will continue my research, which has informed changes in invasive species management practices and policies at local to international scales. I look forward to learning from many new colleagues in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, a world-class department that I’ve admired for years for its work on elucidating how nature works.

Solving problems begins with understanding them. Solving increasingly complex and connected sustainability problems requires expertise from many disciplines. Universities are the places where the necessary collection of expertise exists, and the Atkinson Center brings those scholars together across disciplines and provides the resources and settings that stimulate creative diagnoses of sustainability problems.

The world is filled with complex issues involving agricultural production, energy, oceanic pollution, atmospheric greenhouse gases and the like, but policies approach obstacles from a diagnostic view. You’ve spoken about “solutions approaches” – how can the Atkinson Center apply these ideas?

Yes, the history of scientific contributions to sustainability is too weighted toward diagnosis – which is in the comfort zone of scholars, but diagnosis alone is insufficient. It is like going to a doctor who identifies your ailment, but doesn’t offer a treatment plan.

We encourage scholars to work on the intellectually challenging questions that are the key to helping solve sustainability problems. Equally important, we encourage scholars to welcome research questions from leaders in industry, government or nonacademic organizations who are in a position to test and apply new research results quickly.

How do external partnerships help translate research into solving global sustainability and environmental problems?

In distinctive ways, the Atkinson Center is partnering with an increasing diversity of organizations that help shape our research to make it more applicable to sustainability solutions. This co-production of knowledge and solutions is the most effective and efficient way to diagnose and solve problems.

Just a couple current examples: Through our partnership with CARE, childhood health in Zambia has improved because simple, inexpensive ways to separate child play areas from animal waste have been developed and are now being tested in multiple communities in sub-Saharan Africa. Atkinson Center-funded research on an outbreak of a novel disease devastating U.S. West Coast sea star populations that helped motivate a bill in Congress that improves the management of risks of the global spread of diseases for marine wildlife.

We are beginning to work with the Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental organization, on soil health and other sustainable agricultural practices. The Smithsonian Institution hopes to apply our new technological breakthroughs in animal breeding to the conservation of endangered species.

A new partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund uses cutting-edge science to inform policy on a wide variety of issues, ranging from global fisheries management to fugitive methane emissions at points of use, not just production. Our EDF portfolio also includes two social science projects with faculty in the communication department who are examining ways to communicate environmental messages that resonate with important audiences, such as different ethnic groups and young adults.

What do Cornell and the Atkinson Center bring to the world stage?

There is no other university with Cornell’s combination of Ivy League intellectual firepower and land-grant mission. Also there are few, if any, other academic sustainability centers with a broad enough mandate and resources to tackle the complexity of connected issues necessary for my children, grandchildren and the natural world around them to thrive. Our mission is to discover and help implement solutions to world needs for reliable energy, a resilient environment and responsible economic development. The economy is dependent on the environment and vice versa, and in the long run, human well-being is dependent on both.

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