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Spring 1999

Heal the World
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By taking a multidisciplinary approach, researchers in UCLA's Institute of the Enviornment are tackling the vexing issues of how to clean up our air, water and land
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By Dan Gordon '85

Lest he ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Richard Ambrose Ph.D. '82 acknowledges the complaint he's heard more than once about university researchers and the way they approach real-world environmental problems.

"The classic stereotype is that when you get academics involved in trying to come up with solutions that can be implemented, they'll do a study and then conclude that there need to be more studies done before any decisions can be made," says Ambrose, an ecologist in the School of Public Health.

"Many times we do need more information," he protests, laughing. "But we can also make recommendations based on what we know right now."

Not long ago, academics in Ambrose's field looked askance at colleagues who focused their energies on finding practical solutions to specific environmental problems. Some of the best evidence that this is no longer the case has developed over the past few years at UCLA, where a grass-roots movement by faculty culminated in 1997 with the establishment of the Institute of the Environment (IoE).

The IoE involves approximately 60 faculty in fields whose academic paths typically have not crossed in environmental studies. Law professors, political scientists, urban planners, sociologists and economists mix freely with biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers, statisticians and experts in business and public health. That unusual transcendence represents the conviction of IoE members that environmental problems increasingly demand a team approach by experts from a broad spectrum of disciplines if they are to be adequately addressed.

"Technologists like myself have tended to say, 'Here's the answer; if people just did as we said it would be a perfect world,' " says IoE Director Michael Stenstrom, a civil and environmental engineering professor. "Then we get upset when decision-makers don't do as we say." Stenstrom points out that technical solutions exist to many of our most vexing environmental problems, but many of these solutions are not politically or economically feasible: Just ask your local electric-car manufacturer.

"We're trying to adopt an approach that is transdisciplinary in the sense that our work will be based not only on good technology, but also on an awareness of policy, law and economics," Stenstrom explains. "That way, our solutions will be more amenable and adoptable."

Taking after the well-received quarterly business forecast published by the Anderson School at UCLA, the IoE leadership created its own model, a yearly "report card" on the Southern California environment. The first Southern California Environmental Report Card was published late last year; the second (which will visit a new group of topics) is scheduled to be released in September. "We hope to be able to produce something each time that will attract the attention of both government agencies and the public," says Stenstrom.

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