A Conversation with CIGLR Director, Brad Cardinale

Originally published: 
June, 2017

Dr. Bradley Cardinale is a Professor in the new School for Environment and Sustainability, and Director of the recently established Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR). This past May, the University of Michigan was awarded a five-year, $20 million grant from the federal government to form a new research institute that expands upon the former Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research (CILER). The new institute, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), represents a partnership between nine universities across the Great Lakes region, as well as multiple nongovernmental organizations and private businesses.

Cardinale led the proposal that won CIGLR. We spoke to him about the new institute, opportunities for students, and the role of scientists in today’s political climate.

How did the idea of transforming CILER to CIGLR come about?

CILER was founded on research that was based in the natural sciences—mostly Limnology (the ‘L’), which is the study of the biological, chemical, and physical characteristics of lakes, streams, and wetlands. We complimented that with a bit of ecosystems research (the ‘ER’), which tries to link the biology, chemistry, and physics to understand how ecosystems work as a whole.

But over the past several years, CILER had become bigger and broader than just biology, chemistry and physics. Perhaps because of being in an interdisciplinary school like SEAS, we were thinking more broadly about environmental problems and challenges that relate to social issues and human behaviors. For example, our natural scientists were getting pretty good at predicting when, why, and where a harmful algal bloom might form in the Great Lakes. But we couldn’t predict whether or not anyone would care, nor whether people would be willing to change their behaviors to prevent blooms from forming in the future. These issues are in the realm of the social sciences, and to address them, we had to start interacting with other science-based disciplines.

Furthermore, we found that many of our projects – primarily those funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) - were requiring us to work more closely with engineers and landscape designers who help translate science into blueprints that allow real actions to be taken that create healthier ecosystems.

So the former name just didn't fit anymore. Our work had evolved to more broadly integrate a variety of scientific disciplines, as well as engineering and design. I felt it was time for a make-over that not only updated our name, but also our mission, research agenda, and the nature of our partnerships to better reflect what we had actually become, and what we aspire to be.

As SNRE becomes SEAS and is moving toward a broader interdisciplinary approach, CIGLR seems to present a perfect example of that.

Yes, and given the formation of the new School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), we also wanted to focus more on learning how to manage the world’s largest freshwater resource more sustainably. The word "sustainability" connotes much more than just the natural sciences. There are many disciplines that are invested in helping human society sustain itself and be prosperous on this planet. We wanted to represent those investments in our work on the Great Lakes as well.

Does the current political climate impact your work?

It certainly could, but we don't yet know how. If the President’s proposed budget is realized—where he's proposed to cut NOAA by 30 percent, gut all science within the EPA, and virtually eliminate the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative – these cuts would eliminate much of the funding that would support our institute, as well as funding used to support NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab.

The good news is that when we talk to our congressional leaders across Great Lakes states, they are unified across parties in saying that funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, funding for NOAA, and surprisingly, funding for key parts of the EPA, are all critical to the economic vitality of the Great Lakes region, as well as the health and well-being of its people. That’s great news to us, because ultimately it's the Congress that approves the budget, not the President.

The economic concerns must be in your favor, as a great number of jobs depend upon the Great Lakes.

Yes, that’s right. With a gross domestic product of more than $5 trillion per year, the Great Lakes region is the sixth largest economy in the world. Commercial, recreational and trial fisheries are collectively valued at $7 billion annually and support more than 75,000 jobs. The Great Lakes tourism industry is worth more than $16 billion per year and generates 218,000 jobs by itself.

Bottom line is that hundreds of thousands of people who voted for President Trump in the Great Lakes states have livelihoods that are intimately linked to the sustainability of the lakes. If Trump guts the initiatives that are the very foundation of economic prosperity in the Great Lakes, he’ll be going back on a promise he made to both protect and generate jobs for people in this region.

On a personal level, are you hopeful? Or do you just do your work, and maintain your determination—without getting into the betting game on how this is going to go?

I am convinced that every scientist needs to get into the betting game. Historically, many scientists have tried to keep their work separate from politics. I don’t think this has been good for anyone. We now live in the first American culture to routinely deny scientific facts on a wide variety of issues that influence the future of humanity. Part of that is our own fault, and ignoring this cultural shift by further refusing to engage with society is not going to improve the situation.

We need to accept that science and politics always have, and always will go hand in hand. Though science is but one way of bringing knowledge to the table, it is one of the most objective was of providing society with information needed to prioritize values, and to evaluate the consequences of alternative decisions.

If scientists in the U.S. refuse to communicate why research and objective interpretation of facts are important for decision making, then we shouldn’t be surprised when science gets ignored in policy. And we shouldn’t be surprised when other countries like China, or those in Europe that are investing far more money in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) take over as the world’s most powerful intellectual and economic leaders.

Rather than sitting back and hoping someone will someday read and appreciate my research, I've been increasingly active in engaging with the public and with policy-makers to advocate for the value of science for society. If younger scientists learn to engage even more, I am optimistic we can change the current tide of American culture.

Assuming that things move forward in the best possible way, will there be increased opportunities for our students at CIGLR?

Yes. Every year CIGLR will fund a couple of Ph.D. fellowships to support graduate students at our University Partners institutions who also plan to collaborate with researchers at NOAA. We also run the summer fellows program that gives 10 to 15 students a phenomenal opportunity to work at the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab. These students get to go out on research vessels in the Great Lakes, take the samples and tow the nets. We train them to become the next Great Lakes researchers.

In addition, there are some paid internships for students to complete master's student group projects that meet the degree requirements in SEAS, but do so by working with research scientists at NOAA on problems related to the Great Lakes. So over the next five years of this grant, we'll be training hundreds of students at the University of Michigan as well as our partner institutions.

In conversations with students over the past academic year, many cited climate change as the most compelling reason for choosing a career in environment and sustainability. But after the 2016 election, a number of them voiced concerns about future job opportunities. As a professor, are you hearing those concerns?

That's a great question. I think everybody is rightfully concerned about their ability to get jobs in environmental science when our administration—at the highest levels in the U.S.—does not value science. But I still think there are plenty of jobs to be had. These may no longer be in government agencies that feel hesitant to expand their workforce in the face of threatened budget cuts. But I expect that individual states will pick up some of the functions that were once under the purview of federal agencies, and other functions will be picked up by nongovernmental agencies.

Students should also note that many other countries, such as Canada, China, and most countries in Europe are investing heavily in science and research. If you are flexible and willing to travel, there are excellent opportunities abroad.

Lastly, I would say that a potential legacy of the Trump administration is that there will be a ton of jobs available as soon as the administration turns over. A lot of environmental scientists will be needed to clean up the mess his policies are going to create. For example, getting rid of the Clean Water Act now will, unfortunately, create a lot of job opportunities later in environmental restoration and remediation. Students who train now will be at the forefront of those new job opportunities when they come.

So you’re saying that despite the best efforts of that administration, science is not going away.

That’s right. I think about other places that have gone through anti-science revolutions. Canada is perhaps a good example. Their last administration was anti-science. But as soon as the next administration got in, science went through a boom because people were starved for all the benefits that research brings to society. Like any industry or job sector, science waxes and wanes with social and governmental priorities. But as difficult of a period as it might be for the next four years, I predict it will be that much better in five.

That sounds like a perfect note to end on, but is there anything you'd like to add?

One thing I would like to emphasize is the importance of partnerships for this new institute. Universities are not known for sharing, being friendly, and cooperating with one another. Universities are also not particularly well-known for establishing true partnerships with government agencies and private organizations where both parties share equally in the costs and benefits of research.

This has long been a problem because many places like the Great Lakes are sufficiently vast that no one university, government agency, or private organization could possibly generate the knowledge to help society manage this resource sustainably.

In a refreshing change of attitude, nine premier universities agreed to join forces with each other, and with several NGOs and private businesses, to form the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research. These partners all agreed to share their expertise, research vessels and labs with NOAA. They also agreed to abide by a uniformly low cost of doing research so that we could get more done with the limited dollars we have.

This is a big deal. I am hoping that this new set of partnerships sets a precedent for how to coordinate regional-scale research across the Great Lakes, and I hope it becomes a model for others who want to bring together universities, government agencies, NGOs, and private businesses to work together on environmental issues. Collectively, we are going to accomplish far more for the 44 million people whose lives are tied to the Great Lakes, than any one of us could accomplish alone.

Read more about the federally funded grant to establish CIGLR.

Visit the CIGLR website