Consortium for Inter-Disciplinary Environmental Research (CIDER)


Conflicts between the need to provide for an expanding human population while also protecting the natural environment from anthropogenic impacts are accelerating rapidly. Such environmental problems are inherently multidimensional and therefore resolved only by interdisciplinary approaches. CIDER integrates and unites the outstanding expertise in environmental sciences that exists among many of Stony Brook University’s leading departments and institutes with that of neighboring world-class laboratories and industries in the natural, social, engineering, and health sciences. By combining strengths across disciplines, CIDER positions Stony Brook to become a leading institution in environmental research and education at regional, national and international levels, and to seize emerging opportunities and challenges that stem from the complex interactions between humans and the natural world.

Overall Objectives

(1) Unite the outstanding collective research and teaching expertise of Stony Brook
University’s natural, social, engineering, and health science programs with that of nearby private and federal laboratories and industry to develop coordinated, team-based research on environmental issues.
(2) Focus on complex environmental problems that have multiple causes and effects and that therefore require multi- and interdisciplinary efforts.
(3) Promote an approach to graduate training that emphasizes in-depth knowledge of a particular discipline combined with a commitment to apply that expertise to broad, inherently multidisciplinary environmental problems that are best tackled by teams of scientists working collaboratively.
(4) Educate managers, public officials and the public about environmental issues and suggest appropriate policies that can be employed to provide solutions, including cost/benefit analyses of various alternatives.


There is a wide spectrum of exciting, state-of-the-art research in many areas of environmental science at Stony Brook University. Most environmental issues are multidimensional and must be addressed from an interdisciplinary perspective that includes the natural, social, health, and engineering sciences. With the establishment of CIDER, more formalized ties and new collaborations are being generated among faculty from various administrative homes but with a common interest in environmental issues. Synergistic interactions among faculty and graduate students of varying disciplines lead to new and innovative approaches to address environmental problems. Stony Brook University is a particularly appropriate place for this consortium due to its unique blend of talent and important geographic considerations. First, there are few universities that have leading science and social science departments, marine and atmospheric scientists, and a research-oriented medical school all co-located on the same campus. Further, the close administrative and geographic ties with the Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory bring added value and unique facilities to interdisciplinary efforts. The geographic location of Stony Brook is also ideal for such a consortium. Stony Brook has a wide range of oceanic, coastal, and terrestrial ecosystems close at hand, and also lies about halfway along a gradient in human population density and environmental degradation (habitat destruction, contamination, etc.). Furthermore, it is also located in a region that is solely dependent upon an aquifer as its sole source of freshwater and that is also inextricably linked to coastal waters for recreational and commercial purposes. Consequently, the studies conducted here could serve as a model for many of the world’s cities, particularly those in coastal regions. No other program or institution on the Eastern Seaboard has a public mission to identify, study, publicize, and resolve the unique, multidimensional environmental problems of New York’s coastal zone from a comprehensive perspective.

Potential Focal Areas

Six foci are described here as examples where CIDER enhances Stony Brook’s intellectual environment and capability to address multidisciplinary environmental problems. For each case, it would be considerably more difficult to involve scientists from the appropriate disciplines without the formation of a consortium of environmental scientists. The areas described below are only examples: there are many other opportunities that can be developed.

Environment and human health

Establishing the impact of human activities on environmental health, and relating environmental factors to human health, are two of the most critical issues of our times. The urban environment in the New York metropolitan area presents an ideal setting within which to evaluate these issues. The interdisciplinary approach that many Stony Brook University faculty embrace, and the broad spectrum of expertise available on this campus, provide an excellent opportunity to make important new contributions at understanding environmental impacts at the organismal, community and ecosystem levels, and as well draw links between diverse environmental factors and public health. Many human diseases can be linked to environmental causes, including exposure to pathogens and chemical contaminants. An important route of contaminant and pathogen exposure to humans is through food consumption, including seafood, and risks associated with the consumption of contaminated seafood need to be addressed. This is particularly important in urban areas where aquatic organisms are frequently exposed to elevated contaminant concentrations. Critical pathway analyses should focus in particular on subsets of the population that rely on locally caught animals as a source of protein, as they may be at high risk. Faculty at Stony Brook University are well suited to lead a multidisciplinary effort to describe the cycling and bioaccumulation of select contaminants in coastal and freshwater systems; this information would provide a data base to help quantify the exposure of humans to select contaminants (pesticides and maybe other organic contaminants, metals [e.g., mercury], metalloids [e.g., arsenic, selenium], and radionuclides from regional facilities and accidental or terrorist releases). Scientists at Stony Brook’s Health Science Center can incorporate these data into physiological and epidemiological studies to explore links between environmental contamination and disease.

An emerging area of future research involves the interface between ecology and the spread of infectious disease. It is well known that spatial arrangement of the landscape, human interaction, and population fluctuations of natural vectors figure importantly in the spread of disease, both within humans and naturally occurring species populations. Examples include certain pests (ticks, mosquitoes) and exploited fishery resources. Stony Brook is a major center for understanding important diseases of this sort, namely Lyme disease and West Nile virus. Exploring the interface between humans and the ecology of natural disease vectors would provide important new advances in our understanding of the spread and genetic diversity of virulence.

The link between sewage and pathogens will also be explored. Marine scientists at Stony Brook employing new methods for detecting sewage related contaminants and tracers of sewage inputs will collaborate with microbiologists, infectious disease experts and epidemiologists. Pathogens can affect human consumers of seafood and affect populations of marine animals themselves. Further, scientists associated with the Marine Animal Disease Lab at MSRC could be involved to evaluate impacts on aquatic species and explore potential links to human consumers through this vector.

The potential link between groundwater contamination and human health is especially critical on Long Island. The reliance of Long Islanders on a sole source aquifer, and its use for irrigation water in farming enterprises in Suffolk County (NY State’s most valuable agricultural county), and the high level of concern regarding increased cancer incidence among the populace make this an especially good study site. There are risks associated with pharmaceutical agents, hormones, pesticides, and more conventional persistent contaminants that Stony Brook faculty will play a significant role in addressing.

The establishment of CIDER helps the faculty in various science departments to take advantage of the proximity to a major medical center (HSC and Stony Brook Hospital), one of the world’s foremost laboratories on molecular genetics (Cold Spring Harbor), and a major federal laboratory with an environmental sciences program (BNL) to address this important problem. It facilitates increased collaboration between environmental scientists and faculty in the medical community, including epidemiologists and specialists in community medicine, as well as basic scientists in infectious diseases, pharmacology and other units. This interdisciplinary endeavor is also a platform to attract top graduate students.

Regional climate change: science, impact, mitigation, and policy

Global climate change as a result of increasing amounts of atmospheric greenhouse gases caused by human activities has received much attention in recent years. As increasingly definitive observational signatures of global warming are becoming evident from measurements, societal emphasis will necessarily shift to regional patterns of global climate change. Regional climate change, however, involves unique multidisciplinary problems. Aside from global influence, human activities around large cities such as New York City impact regional climate through urbanization, land use, construction, and pollution. Evidence exists, for example, that changes in certain climate variables in NYC differ greatly from those near Stony Brook on Long Island.

There has been little research focusing on regional climate change, yet it is the regional climate change that directly influences living standards, economic activities, energy consumption, insurance, transportation, resource management, and public policy. The science of regional climate change involves the quantification of human forcing on the regional climate system and the physical, chemical, and hydrological feedback processes associated with local circulation such as sea-land breeze, clouds, precipitation, turbulence, convection, biomass, and human behavior. A complete understanding of these processes requires mathematical modeling of the coupled land-ocean-atmospheric system with regional landscape and human activities, which also bring challenges and opportunities in computational sciences and computer graphics, imaging, satellite technologies and human-environmental interactions. Successful development of a computer based modeling system of the regional climate also has the potential to be applied to long-range environmental forecasting, insurance, risk management, financial weather derivatives, and homeland security. These issues therefore require application of atmospheric and marine sciences, physics, chemistry, mathematics and computer sciences to understand the cause and response of the physical system. It also requires economics and management sciences to describe and project human forcing factors specific to the region.

Regional climate change will impact marine and terrestrial ecosystems, including human societies, and such factors as energy consumption, health, transportation, and management. Quantitative understanding of these links can help stimulate interdisciplinary thinking that brings together many disciplines in natural and social sciences. The problem naturally requires a mitigation strategy. Significant engineering opportunities exist to explore new energy resources and methods to offset the inadvertent human impact on the natural environment. Policy and management are also an integral part of the mitigation strategy. This focus area therefore needs social scientists, ecologists, economists, a nalytical chemists, and medical scientists to address the regional climate change impact, and engineers and managers to study mitigation and public policy.

Environmental conservation

One of the leading challenges, and opportunities, facing environmental science in the 21st century involves the conservation of biological diversity (CBD). From an ecological perspective, CBD lies at the heart of the functioning of environmental systems. That is, all environmental processes are mediated, and many regulated, by organisms. From a public policy perspective, CBD is at the heart of nationally prominent legislation, e.g., the Endangered Species Act of 1972. As a vehicle for both education and outreach, biological diversity is one of the most effective ways to capture the attention and interest of both students and the public. Stony Brook is superbly suited to address the breadth and depth of issues involved in CBD. Faculty from diverse departments are leaders in research on biological diversity in areas ranging from microbial biology at both geochemical and evolutionary scales to vertebrate diversity across landscapes. For example, studies on microbial diversity at Stony Brook have been useful in highlighting the dynamics of disease causing bacteria and the interplay of microbial ecology and pathogen virulence. Studies on vertebrate diversity at Stony Brook have played a major role in both basic ecology and land-use policy in regions as diverse as the Long Island Pine Barrens and the rain forests of Madagascar.

The role of organisms and the importance of diversity in mediating biological processes provide a central core in modern environmental science. On issues ranging from phytoremediation to toxicology to air and water pollution, biological diversity is crucial. For example, the plants in terrestrial ecosystems are important sinks of ozone in the lower atmosphere, and the diversity of plant species is important in modulating ozone concentrations. Bacterial diversity is essential for the cycling of important nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and human activities that reduce fertility often act through effects on microbial diversity. Also, in the realm of human disease, studies of microbial and viral diversity have proven essential to understanding the dynamics of disease transmission and virulence.

In the realm of public policy, much environmental policy is based on legislation designed to preserve biological diversity or that uses indices of diversity to evaluate environmental impacts. As noted above, the ESA of 1972 is central to many environmental efforts in the USA from local to national scales. Other crucial legislation, e.g., the Clean Water Act, uses biological diversity as a core criterion for evaluating the impacts of human activities on the environment. Diversity, per se, has become an important tool in the shaping of public policy. Many conservation efforts are grounded upon in the goal of diversity preservation, and diversity as a concept has been highly successful in shaping public debate.

Stony Brook particularly has great cross-departmental strength in the study of the conservation of tropical environments. Topics range from the design and surveying of large tropical preserves to multidisciplinary ecological studies of threatened species of groups such as primates; these have major ecological impacts on forests and are also of great interest to the public.

Marine zoning

Many of the world’s most precious and ecologically valuable marine habitats have declined dramatically, some to the brink of collapse. The causes are a combination of over-harvesting, pollution, over-development in the coastal zone, and habitat damage due to excessive human activity. These pressures will accelerate in the near future as global fishery landings continue to decline and new forms of offshore development, such as the creation of wind energy farms, increase. In New York, the problem is especially severe. Nearly all of New York’s shellfish fisheries (hard clams, oysters, scallops, lobsters) are economically extinct, hypoxia and harmful algal blooms plague our waters, and salt marshes are being lost at an alarming rate. With sea level expected to rise another 1-3 feet within the next 50-100 years, combined with shoreline hardening (e.g., by sea walls) caused by human development, New York may lose much of its productive shallow habitat in the very near future.

The rapid pace of marine ecosystem decline in many parts of the world has led many scientists to argue that a completely new approach to protection of the marine environment is needed. As has been done for years in terrestrial habitats, human activities in the marine environment may need to be regulated in a spatially-explicit manner so as to protect ecologically sensitive habitats. Some areas would be set aside as fully protected marine sanctuaries or reserves, while other areas would be designated for recreational or commercial fishing, transportation and dredging (shipping, ferries), wind energy farms, jet skiing, and waste disposal, etc. The U.S. Oceans Commission Report strongly endorsed this approach in January 2004 and the Pew Foundation Oceans Commission has already called for extensive use of protected areas. Such plans remain controversial and their implementation and/or likelihood of success is a multidimensional problem, involving not only marine scientists but also social scientists, economists, and public planners. With strengths in many of these areas, SBU will play a leadership role in designing new approaches to protecting marine biodiversity while sustaining economic benefits provided by ocean resources.

Transferable Development Rights

The State of New York passed the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act in 1993. This began one of the most interesting ongoing experiments in limiting development in environmentally fragile areas. It is based on the concept of transferable development rights. For a number of reasons, now is a good time for a multidisciplinary team to evaluate how well the Act has done in protecting the Pine Barrens. One reason is that the Act has now been operational for long enough for its effects to be observable. A second reason is that CIDER can now bring together a multidisciplinary group with a great deal of experience both with environmental change in the Pine Barrens and with the economics of transferable development rights policies. The lessons from the Pine Barrens are potentially important for producing better environmental policies across a wide spectrum of problems. Because transferable development rights policies are relatively market-friendly they can often achieve good results at a comparatively low social and economic cost.

Environmental engineering and industrial outreach

A consortium approach is extremely valuable for pursuing new research and educational directions related to environmental engineering. For example, a systems approach to energy issues needs to incorporate electrical and mechanical engineering, materials expertise, environmental science, computer science, operations research, risk analysis, and economic and management skills to be successful. An integrated approach to environmental remediation must take into account various technological issues (such as materials science, molecular and dynamic computer modeling, sensor technology and bioengineering) as well as issues related to societal impact (such as long-term site stewardship by communities), human and ecological health, the political landscape and economic feasibility of new methods for pollution prevention and clean up. Without this type of integrated approach -- highlighted by access to diverse skills and knowledge – the process of identifying opportunities, competing for new funding, and succeeding in development of sustainable collaborative programs is extremely difficult (if not impossible). Likewise, using engineering approaches to problem solving can bring added value to collaborative efforts in the basic sciences and other areas. Hence a model for university-industrial collaboration could be developed for industrial outreach and partnering for design, research and development, and technology transfer.

Research Funding

An important reason for creating CIDER is to enable SBU and its partners to compete more effectively for large interdisciplinary grants that require integration across traditional academic boundaries while also providing enhanced opportunities for education and public outreach. In 1998, the National Science Board established the Task Force on the Environment within its Committee on Programs and Plans. The Task Force provided guidance to the National Science Foundation (NSF) in defining the scope of its role with respect to environmental research, education, and scientific assessment and in determining the best means of implementing related activities. The report, Environmental Science and Engineering for the 21st Century: The Role of the National Science Foundation was issued in February 2000. One major result of this report was the establishment of the NSF Working Group on Biocomplexity in the Environment, later renamed the Working Group on Environmental Research and Education (ERE). NSF’s commitment to ERE is underscored by the followi integrate holistic multidisciplinary investments with disciplinary-intensive opportunities. Because of the tremendous opportunity for advances in environmental science and engineering revealed by this integrative approach, NSF considers environmental research and education a strategic priority for the Foundation. In FY 2001, funding in ERE areas totaled approximately $825 million, roughly one-fifth of NSF's research budget.” NIH also has large programs that deal with the connection between environmental science and human health.

Currently, faculty in many departments at Stony Brook are engaged in different facets of environmental science and are associated with CIDER. Additionally, various institutes and cross-disciplinary research programs at Stony Brook are active in environmental research, including the Center for Environment Molecular Science, the Long Island Groundwater Research Institute, the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments, the Living Marine Resources Institute, the Waste Reduction and Management Institute, the Institute for Terrestrial and Planetary Atmospheres, and 3MT. CIDER has a core faculty whose principal goals are to build the institute through research and teaching in collaborations that extend across departments and other organizations both on and off campus.

Each of the faculty members has a home in one of the existing Stony Brook University departments or at Brookhaven National Lab, but also has a commitment to the activities and mission of the Consortium. They form the core faculty from which, together with many affiliated and adjunct faculty, would emerge an intellectual community dedicated to broad-based environmental research, education, and policy issues.

Consortium for Inter-Disciplinary Environmental Research
Director: Nicholas S. Fisher
School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences
129 Dana Hall
Stony Brook University
Stony Brook, NY 11794-5000

Last modified December 2006
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