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Financing science: Solving public problems with public money

On very high tides along the New Hampshire coast, this causeway is almost submerged, illustrating the importance of infrastructure engineers to collaborate with climate scientists. (Photo: Steve Miller, Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve)

When a road is flooded, maybe even submerged in saltwater for days, drivers might wonder if it's safe to use even after the flood recedes. A $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) program will fund a four-year effort to build a collaborative network supporting research on the impact of climate on road systems and bridges. After Hurricane Sandy's devastation of transportation infrastructure on the East Coast, the timing couldn't be better.

"Road systems were designed to keep water away from the pavement," says Jennifer M. Jacobs, a professor of civil engineering at the University of New Hampshire. "So, when you have ...  what happened in New York City, when you have pavement systems that are under water for a good long time, they don't really know what happens to the system — when it's safe to travel on, what the effects are going to be if you start putting large vehicles on those systems to help recovery efforts."

It's not only disasters that cause damage. Ordinary seasonal changes have an impact.

"One of the things about a pavement system is that if it gets too cold for too long you can end up with frost heave, depending on what the pavement system is," Jacobs says. "If it gets too hot for too long your pavement can start to move and it can deform."

The dearth of research on the impact that climate can have on transportation infrastructure makes it difficult to measure the sustainability of current or future construction and materials and to develop best practices. An expert in hydrology with 20 years of experience, Jacobs says much of the data needed to support this kind of research already exists. The problem is the expense and time required to collect that data in one place and supporting scientists willing and able to study climate impact. That is what this grant aims to do.

"We're talking about bridges, roads and the networks among them," Jacobs says. "What we proposed was to create a multi-institutional collabratory to integrate climate science and engineering research. Our network is name ICNet, Infrastructure and Climate Network."

ICNet's core team of about 50 people will connect scientists who are interested in doing research around the topic of climate change and sea-level rise to augment their existing portfolio of work.

"There is almost no scholarship, refereed papers that have been produced looking at climate change and infrastructure with respect to bridges and roads," Jacobs says. "There just isn't any background in research that's been done to inform decisions (or) figure out what should the research questions be.

Jacobs tapped leading engineering researchers — all of them funded by NSF — who are at the cutting edge of research in their area, and asked them, \"'Are you thinking about climate change?' How do we best help these researchers figure out where climate change fits into their domain?"

In addition to university researchers, the network includes private consultants, state transportation departments and a variety of other groups that have a stake or interest in roads and bridges.

To keep the scope of work manageable while the network is constructed, the data collection is limited to the Northeast. While the team is established and scientists identify the datasets necessary to support research, the grant is designed to achieve some tangible outcomes. One of those tangibles will be something Jacobs calls a "knowledge commons," a website that will serve as a central repository for all the related data and software tools (e.g. web conferencing) that are necessary to support new research efforts.

Why government funded research?

Jacobs describes information-gathering research as the kind of science that results in data. All that data is essential to support a host of other research, but gathering it is time-consuming and expensive.

"You've got study after study that shows that many of the fundamental science ideas ultimately lead to things that are going to benefit science," Jacobs says. "There's not that many agencies that fund fundamental science and oftentimes — for example, in the oil and gas industry — they fund fundamental science but you're never going to hear about it because it's proprietary.

"As soon as you start having community data sets, you really accelerate the rate at which science gets done because it takes so much time and energy to gather data, to put them together."

It is mostly government research money that makes such research possible. Congress created the NSF in particular "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare..."

Let lawmakers know how important science funding is to your work!

There is an obvious benefit for U.S. leadership in the sciences and as a global innovator of new technologies, which makes it a good idea to invest public money to generate public research, according to Jacobs.

"NSF uses the phrase 'transformative research.' There's high-risk research, meaning (it) could absolutely fall on its face; but if it's successful, it would be really exciting and some new and innovative things would definitely come out of it," Jacobs says. "There's got to be a place for that."

The devil is in the data details

Another outcome of the grant is the standardization of the data collected to make it usable across multipledisciplines. Then the challenge will be to develop a methodology for this process to continue and find a permanent home to institutionalize these efforts. The grant was announced November 1, but the team already has a vision for how to keep this network functional after the NSF money runs out. One possibility is to have an agency that will directly benefit from the data and research, such as state departments of transportation or county engineering departments, take ownership.

"These questions about climate change and sea-level rise (are) not going to go away. There's going to be a real need to be able to actually do adaptation planning or figure how to handle it or integrate it as part of day-to-day business for these agencies," Jacob says.

This sustainability is essential. Federal funding for scientific research is diminishing even as climate changes continue to pose new challenges to daily life, according to Jacobs. When factoring in the effect of inflation over the past 10 years, the research budgets of many federal agencies such as the NSF, the National Institute of Health (NIH), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and others are either flat of declining.

"Money is much harder to come by, it's much more competitive. A lot of the agencies that used to have money really no longer have research funds," Jacobs says.

She believes government-funded research is important for addressing current and future infrastructure challenges. Using climate change as an example, Jacobs says collaboration between scientists and the government increases the likelihood of successful problem-solving. And that makes the world a better place for everyone.

"Research costs money. It seems like a large investment of money. But the scholars (who) receive that aren't wasting that money; they are putting it to good practical use." Jacobs says.

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On very high tides along the New Hampshire coast, this causeway is almost submerged, illustrating the importance of infrastructure engineers to collaborate with climate scientists. (Photo: Steve Miller, Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve)
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Margo Pierce

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