March 10, 2010

Universities win big grant for 'green' research

JOHN RICHARDSON

— By

Staff Writer

The University of Maine and University of Southern Maine are launching a broad new education and research effort to create a greener society.

The schools have received a $20 million, five-year federal grant to create the Sustainability Solution Initiative, which will be based at UMaine in Orono.

Gov. John Baldacci is scheduled to formally announce the grant Wednesday at the campus, according to an advisory sent by the school Monday. It is believed to be the largest research grant ever received by the university system, and comes from the same federal grant program that launched UMaine's Advanced Structures Composites Center and Climate Change Institute, among other efforts.

The funding will pay for new faculty positions, research projects and a variety of academic courses focused on understanding environmental threats and how to make the transition to a more sustainable society. Ultimately, the initiative could help make the transitions to renewable energy, alternative transportation and improved water management.

The project will directly support as many as 300 research-based and other jobs -- most of them new positions -- and will expand education initiatives at all grade levels in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to the advisory.

''Everybody's talking about the green economy and how the economy is going to have to change to adapt to climate change,'' said Charles Colgan, an economics professor at USM's Muskie School of Public Service. How to make that transition is not well understood, he said.

''We're going to have to change not just where we get our energy from, but there's the whole question of are we going to continue to sprawl outwards'' and what kind of housing we should build, said Colgan, who is one of the core faculty working on the initiative.

''The whole question of sustainability is a lot more complicated than wind power. That's what this initiative is about,'' he said. ''We want to create computer models of the Maine landscape that will allow us to see in much greater detail what's going to happen over the next 50 years.''

A UMaine Web site describes the Sustainability Solutions Initiative as an effort to bring together the state's social, political, economic, communications and ecological experts and promote research that could help decision-makers. Initial research projects will focus on pressures facing Maine's landscape, including urbanization, forest management and climate change.

The grant money will pay for a variety of student and faculty research efforts, as well as three new faculty positions at the University of Maine and one at USM in Portland, Colgan said.

Although UMaine and USM are leading the effort, other colleges and universities also are expected to be part of the initiative and various research efforts.

The $20 million grant comes from a National Science Foundation program that helps build research capacity in more-rural states such as Maine. Baldacci's announcement is scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Wells Conference Center in Orono.

In addition to the five-year NSF grant, the Maine Economic Improvement Fund is contributing a $5 million grant plus a $5 million in-kind contribution for salaries and research facilities during the same period.

Other university system initiatives created with the funding have gone on to attract academic experts and influence the state's policies and economy. A $6.9 million, three-year NSF grant created UMaine's Forest Bioproducts Research Initiative in 2006, for example.

''That really helped us to put the investment into the research infrastructure,'' including new research equipment and three new faculty members, said Hemant Pendse, the initiative's managing director. ''It really shows how we can rapidly take the basic research and bring it to a place so the private sector gets the benefit.''

The bioproducts initiative has been working with the Old Town Pulp & Paper Mill to turn wood into ethanol, and helped win a $30 million federal energy grant that put 160 people back to work there.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

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