The Research-Climate Nexus facing academic and research facilities development
Leading academic or research organizations seeking to build state of the art research facilities and do the right thing regarding climate change face a vexing problem.
We call this the Research-Climate Nexus.
New research facilities, especially in the science disciplines, offer universities a competitive edge when it comes to recruiting top faculty, students, and research grants. Unfortunately, these facilities are among the most energy and carbon intensive building types, a reality that works against aggressive goals for carbon reduction. With nearly a quarter of US universities making public commitments to becoming climate neutral—and more institutions preparing to follow suit—resolving this conflict between research and carbon reduction is becoming an increasingly important issue at progressive research institutions.
The growing practice of disclosing building and campus emissions data has many schools facing questions about the impact of their institutional goals on greenhouse gas emissions targets. Over more than a decade of engaging with higher education institutions around sustainability and climate action, BuroHappold has seen this challenge grow in relevance at research-driven institutions. While some universities acknowledge this issue; most don’t and choose to silo the topics to mitigate conflict.
To understand the extent of the Research-Climate Nexus’ relevance to universities and how these institutions are responding, we undertook a three-part study. Findings from the first two steps—convening a focus group and engaging a broader group through conferences—are summarized below. This post kicks off the third component, a wider survey of higher education institutions.
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Building upon BuroHappold’s ongoing engagement with several progressive research universities exploring the Research-Climate Nexus, we created a small focus group to dig deeper into this conflict. The group includes:
- Sarah Brylinsky, Sustainability Project Manager at Cornell University (and recently MIT)
- Stephanie Corbett, Director of Sustainability at Case Western Reserve University
- Shana Weber, Director in the Office of Sustainability at Princeton University.
These research-driven institutions all have progressive sustainability initiatives on campus as well as public-facing climate neutrality commitments. At the same time, these institutions are investing in research facilities to remain competitive. The dialogue with this focus group confirmed that these institutions were facing and approaching the issue in various interesting ways. Three major themes emerged.
1. Understanding the high intensity of new construction
At Case Western Reserve University internal trends and benchmarking demonstrate that research buildings most closely aligned with the university’s larger mission are the most intensive energy consumers on campus with the highest carbon footprint. Case has asked researchers to consider the intersection of research outputs and environmental impacts. How is research value normalized by academia? Can this assessment include sustainability, community/social impact, or climate specific metrics?
2. Creating “Living labs” to break down silos
Princeton University’s recently completed Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment is LEED Silver, yet still one of the most energy-intensive buildings on campus. The irony is not lost on Princeton’s researchers; and the university now has a “campus as lab” director charged with building the dialogue between its facilities and research arms.
3. Linking resources to the mission
Cornell’s Senior Leaders Climate Action Group recently published Options for Achieving a Carbon Neutral Campus (2016) which links resources and climate risk to the university’s larger mission. They argue integrating a ‘fourth P’— purpose, along with people, planet and prosperity—into its decision making processes.
Next BuroHappold and focus group members presented these findings at two conferences, using the three themes as a foundation to broaden the discussion among university representatives.
- World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities – Sept, 14 -16, 2016 at MIT. https://sustainability.mit.edu/wssd2016
- AASHE Conference & Expo—Oct 9-12, 2016 in Baltimore. http://conference.aashe.org/
Engagement exercise at both sessions provided greater insight into the level of recognition of this issue, its perceived impacts and additional approaches to address it. Similar to the focus group participants, the majority of universities have high levels of campus climate commitment and research (and therefore carbon) intensity, with most planning to increase their research intensity in the near and mid-term. (None planned to decrease research intensity.) Figure 1
Figure 1: Mapping of attendees’ climate commitments and research intensity
The results also show that the Research-Climate Nexus is an important issue for many universities and that most currently are having some discussions on the subject. However, there was general consensus that universities should be doing much more to address this issue, as seen in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Mapping of this topic to relevance to attendees and current levels of discussion on campus.
Finally, these exercises surfaced the various approaches universities are using in response to the Research-Climate Nexus. Table 1
New Organizational Structures
Interdisciplinary research growth
Stakeholder pressure for more vibrant collaborative space
Behavioral science partnerships
Dedicated coordination staff for living lab
Process for aligning living lab coursework
Better sustainability course integration
Institutionalization of living lab ideas across campus
Resources to cover professors’ time to develop sustainability content
Carbon tax within schools
New student groups focused on laboratory energy use
Green lab initiatives (for healthier, more efficient labs)
Sustainable operations council, a multidisciplinary group to evaluate operational issues
Reorganization of sustainability teams with more emphasis on academia
Through our focus group and expanded engagement we have found that the Research-Climate Nexus will continue to grow in relevance as universities expand their research commitments and climate commitment deadlines approach. As campuses try to more clearly understand this challenge, they are trying a number of approaches. Further research and knowledge sharing is needed to advance new approaches and to broaden institutional adoption of practices for addressing this critical issue.
In addition to our contributors from Cornell University, Case Western Reserve University and Princeton University, BuroHappold would like to acknowledge the valuable input from our collaborators and colleagues, specifically Cindy Shea, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Erik Backus, Clarkson University.