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The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

NSF Launches Sustainability Research Networks Competition

August 18th, 2011 / in big science, research horizons, resources / by Erwin Gianchandani

(This post has been updated; please scroll down for the latest.)

NSF Announces Sustainability Research Network (SRN) Competition.

Yesterday, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced a competition for Sustainability Research Networks (SRNs) — part of the broader NSF investment in Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (SEES) — seeking to foster collaborative, multi-disciplinary approaches for pursuing the fundamental science and engineering necessary to understand and overcome barriers to sustainable human well-being.

From the official solicitation:

Sustainability Research Networks will engage and explore fundamental theoretical issues and empirical questions in sustainability science, engineering, and education that will increase our understanding of the ultimate sustainability challenge — maintaining and improving the quality of life for the nation within a healthy Earth system. The goal of the Sustainability Research Networks (SRN) competition is to support the development and coalescence of entities to advance collaborative research that addresses questions and challenges in sustainability science, engineering, and education. SRNs will link scientists, engineers, and educators, at existing institutions, centers, networks, and also develop new research efforts and collaborations.


Each SRN network will be built upon an ambitious and nationally important sustainability theme. Proposers will be tasked with choosing a specific theme for their network, identifying the research already being done in this area, proposing methods for linking existing research efforts, and then proposing research needed to advance their specific research theme… SRNs will foster new knowledge and tools at a frontier of research that significantly crosses and melds the boundaries of diverse disciplines, and creates the integrated science and engineering disciplines of the future. SRNs will pursue new opportunities in science, engineering and educational research that truly require the scale, scope, and facilities enabled by such a network…


Proposed SRNs are expected to be multi-dimensional with regard to “disciplines” and address fundamental issues that are likely to yield significant new understanding and knowledge.

Critically important here is the role of fundamental computing research in sustainability — computing can play a leading role in bringing together and resolving aspects of the many complex problems underlying sustainability. A key challenge for us as a community is to think not just broadly about sustainability, but also to collaborate with domain scientists and to understand and gain knowledge in other areas so that we can be more effective in these areas and our work in support of sustainability can have greater impact.

The SRN RFP contains language underscoring the role of computing (emphasis added):

A number of general concepts underlie the science of sustainability, including complexity, emergent behavior, multi-scale processes, and adaptability and resiliency in coupled, human-environment systems. These topics guide research to define tradeoffs in alternate ways of managing the environment and applying technology to improve human well-being, to ensure robustness of social and environmental systems to disruption, and to anticipate thresholds or tipping points in response to rapid and gradual change. This research strives to understand how patterns and processes at the local and regional scales are shaped by – and feed into – processes and patterns that manifest at the global scale over the long term. Conceptual frameworks for sustainability, including general theories and models, are still in their infancy, yet are critically needed to help inform management and policy decisions. The SRN competition seeks to address this need through support for interdisciplinary research and education that strengthens fundamental understanding of sustainability science, engineering, and education that will help achieve more sustainable pathways of development and improve human well-being.

And the several sample SRN themes provided in the solicitation highlight the many ways in which we as computer scientists can leverage our tools to further discovery and innovation in sustainability. As just one example (again, emphasis added):

Large Scale Energy Production and Consumption Dynamics: Driven by climate change and energy security concerns, the world is moving towards a model where energy production & distribution and storage becomes highly distributed, variable in scale (from large utility plants down to home or vehicular level operations), and is likely to involve a large number of technologies. At the same time, it is becoming technologically feasible to achieve significant reduction in consumption by large scale monitoring, coordination, intelligent control, education, and societal pressure. The major energy consumers in a society are transportation, residential and industrial/commercial. An intelligent, secure, multi-level management of energy in each of these sectors or a combination of them that considers interplay between production and consumption, and the considerations of the physical and social environment they operate in, can go a long way in enhancing energy sustainability.

NSF plans to fund three to four SRNs — as cooperative agreements — depending upon the quality of proposals submitted and the availability of funds. Up to three institutions may be involved in any one proposal. Each award will be up to $12 million over four to five years. However, NSF emphasizes:

Proposers are discouraged from asking for the maximum budget amount, unless the proposal outlines network activities that are consistent with this scope. The expectation is that initial years might have smaller budgets.

Thus, for those making initial forays into sustainability through a SRN proposal, a smaller budget and project scope that could be built up over time is likely to be most compelling.

Preliminary proposals, which are required, are due by 5pm local time on Dec. 1, 2011.

For more information, I encourage you to check out the official call for proposals. And to learn more about the fundamental computing research challenges in sustainability, review the report that resulted from a February 2011 NSF/CCC Workshop on the Role of Information Sciences and Engineering in Sustainability (RISES) as well as a brochure the CCC has produced on the subject.

The SRN competition is one of several sustainability-related programs within the SEES portfolio the NSF is rolling out — and we’ll cover the rest right here as they are announced.


Updated at 3:15pm EDT: And fresh off the heels of the above announcement, NSF has now unveiled the Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (SEES) Fellows Program — to provide recent Ph.D.s up to three years of postdoctoral funding to conduct research, establish partnerships, and advance their professional development.

From the program announcement:

The program’s emphasis is to facilitate investigations that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries and address issues of sustainability through a systems approach, building bridges between academic inquiry, economic growth, and societal needs. The Fellow’s proposed investigation should be interdisciplinary and allow him/her to obtain research experience beyond his/her current core disciplinary expertise. Additionally, Fellows are required to develop a research partnership that would broaden the impact and/or scope of the proposed research activities. Such activities might include, but are not limited to, a connection with a NSF Research Coordination Network (RCN), center or facility; industry; a national laboratory; or a state, regional, or local resource management agency. Fellows are required to have two mentors, one for the proposed research at the host institution (the institution that will administer the award) and the other for the research partnership.  The mentors can be from the same institution, but should not be from the same discipline.

For more information about the SEES Fellows Program, click here.

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)

NSF Launches Sustainability Research Networks Competition