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Federal, academic scientists partner to streamline environmental research

| 05 November 2003

A new era of scientific collaboration for the benefit of the environment began on Oct. 28 as the Californian Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit (CESU) held its first planning meeting to set goals for the next five years.

This unit and others like it nationwide establish a streamlined method for matching the research and technical-assistance needs and funding of federal agencies with the scientific interests and expertise of university faculty and graduate students. The Californian CESU, hosted by the College of Natural Resources (CNR), brings together nine University of California campuses, three California State University campuses, and six federal agencies.

While other CESUs have been established for a dozen other geographic regions nationwide, the Californian has several unique traits.

“The Californian CESU provides the largest scope of collaboration among educational institutions,” said Steven Beissinger, chair of CNR’s Department of Environmental Studies, Policy and Management. Beissinger and Professor Craig Moritz, director of Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, proposed its establishment, hosted by Berkeley.

Other leaders of the campus team include Barbara Allen-Diaz, executive associate dean of CNR, and James Shevock, a research coordinator with the National Park Service’s Pacific West region.

“The potential benefit of this arrangement to the environment is huge,” said Beissinger. “California has a tremendous amount of public land managed by the federal government, along with the greatest number of endangered species on the mainland and a population that includes one of every nine people in the U.S. The CESU provides a way to help maintain biodiversity and protect ecosystems by providing expertise to the land managers who need scientific information.”

“The great thing about this CESU is the breadth of expertise available,” said NPS’s Shevock. “This allows us to broaden our research perspectives beyond the natural and physical sciences. That’s important for the National Park Service, which manages a wide array of historical, cultural, archeological, and natural places.”

Shevock’s role will be to market the research and technical-assistance needs of the National Park Service and match those needs with the expertise found at the CESU universities. He will be in residence on the Berkeley campus beginning Jan. 1.

Unlike typical federal agreements, research under CESUs is collaborative in design.

“The CESU is a genuine two-way relationship. Agency and university researchers will plan projects together, and share data and expertise, as opposed to a contractual relationship where a researcher completes a study and may never see how it is used,” said Moritz. “As a researcher, the collaboration is much more satisfying.”

Another benefit is bringing together agencies that may be facing similar problems. “The larger-scale problems are the ones that will really stimulate the interest of faculty,” said Moritz.

The collaborative nature also allows the project to evolve as new information becomes available.

This arrangement provides “a great avenue for graduate students to do research and receive funding,” said Shevock. “It would be much harder for a student to obtain a federal contract. And we’re also hoping that some of these graduate students will consider careers in resource management and become federal employees.”

Belonging to the Californian CESU has wider benefits. “Once your university is a member of a CESU, any other CESU institution can tap your expertise,” said Beissinger.

Cooperating institutions are the University of California’s Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Merced, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz campuses; California State University at Fresno and Los Angeles; San Francisco State University; the Bureau of Land Management; the Bureau of Reclamation; the U.S. Geological Survey; the National Park Service; the USDA Forest Service; and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Other educational institutions and federal agencies are eager to join the Californian CESU. One of the tasks at their first meeting, which was largely administrative, was to set up proccedures for adding partners.

“It’s a new adventure, and we have new relationships to develop, but the potential is so great that I think everyone at the meeting saw the wonderful opportunities for collaboration,” said Shevock.

Although the initial CESU agreement lasts five years, Shevock believes it will be successful and that the CESU will be renewed into the future. “Environmental issues aren’t going away, and having access to the best research available is an ongoing need of the federal government,” he said. “We’re in this partnership for the long haul.”