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Buffett Institute for Global Affairs awards $150,000 in support to ‘Idea Incubation Workshop’ project

photo of awardees
The Buffett Institute for Global Affairs awards $150,000 in support to an innovative global research project — “Disproportionate Impacts of Environmental Challenges.”

The Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs awarded an estimated $150,000 in support to an innovative global research project — “Disproportionate Impacts of Environmental Challenges”— after hosting the institute’s inaugural “Idea Incubation Workshop” this month.

Twelve Northwestern scholars, practitioners and outside experts collaborated on the interdisciplinary project aimed at mitigating climate change, biodiversity loss, desertification, deforestation, pollution and other global environmental challenges that will require unprecedented community-based cooperation and research creativity.

The working group will now strive to marshal solutions to counter the impact of technologies that may enhance sustainability in the developed world but can have adverse health and environmental consequences in the developing world and in marginalized communities. The group’s core focus is to prioritize social justice, human rights and Indigenous rights as essential for developing effective responses to environmental challenges.

The Northwestern Buffett Idea Incubation Workshop is the first in a new effort to incubate ideas, support faculty and select research projects centered on finding interdisciplinary solutions to some of the world’s most vexing problems. It is specifically targeting solutions for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals

The three-day workshop Nov. 15-17 culminated in a pitch competition during which three thematic groups (“Idea Streams”) presented their plans to address critical global challenges to a panel of judges from across different disciplines, who also offered ideas to help the themes.

The panel selected the environmental project, but Northwestern Buffett staff will also continue to work with researchers on the remaining two Idea Streams: “Censorship, Propaganda and Persecution of Journalists” and “Palliative Care in Humanitarian Crises.”

“Northwestern Buffett is committed to catalyzing cross-disciplinary research that addresses pressing global problems,” said Annelise Riles, executive director of the Buffett Institute and associate provost for global affairs. “In a global environment, excellence in research, innovation and the arts can only be achieved through collaboration with those beyond our field and beyond our country’s institutions and concepts.”

Riles said the institute will begin working immediately with members of the selected first project “to expand the network of collaborators, both locally and globally, and help develop a more detailed and concrete plan for research and community engagement. The Northwestern Buffett team will help to facilitate this work as needed over the weeks ahead.”

The broader message, she added, is that this first working group project demonstrates the launch of a process designed to incubate further projects. This process begins with the institute’s “Idea Incubation Dialogues,” and Northwestern researchers are being encouraged to join in. Riles noted that faculty can propose “an idea for collaborative research on a problem of global significance that requires cross-disciplinary expertise.”

The co-directors of the environmental project said they wanted to focus on ways to approach challenges to mitigating climate action and life on land issues in a manner that engages and protects marginalized communities. 

“We want to co-developsolutions with communities that gain the ability to self-adapt to environmental challenges,” said Jennifer Dunn, associate director of the Northwestern Center for Engineering Sustainability and Resilience in the McCormick School of Engineering and research associate professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

“It’s critical that these communities trust us as partners in developing approaches to solving problems they face related to environmental challenges, like adapting to climate change. We intend to do this in part through incorporating traditional community wisdom into status quo problem-solving techniques in the academy,” she added.

In addition, she added, “We want to bring the full power of the expertise at Northwestern in the physical sciences, social sciences and engineering to bear on these challenges to avoid solutions that are designed in a silo and, therefore, don’t address the full scope of a challenge — and so will fail.”

Dunn and her fellow co-director, Kimberly Marion Suiseeya, assistant professor in the department of political science’s Environmental Policy and Culture Program, are determined to try to overcome political or policy barriers to technical solutions that would work very well in a non-political world. They are eager to demonstrate progress towards achieving sustainable development goals that individual communities set for themselves, leading to overall global progress towards’ the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

“My experience in the Idea Incubation Program was formative because, although my work is very interdisciplinary in the engineering space, I had yet to collaborate meaningfully with many of the humanities and social science disciplines, said Dunn, praising the Buffett approach. “These disciplines are well-represented on our team and this interdisciplinarity was really key to our success in the program.”

Suiseeya agreed, noting, “One of the most remarkable things about the IIW weekend was the learning that happened in the room. We came together, mostly never having met or worked together, and we left with different perspectives and understandings of the challenges we are each working to address.

“I was thrilled that we were selected, as were the other team members, but we also knew that if we hadn’t won, each of us had formed new relationships that could lead to improved interdisciplinary work,” Suiseeya added. “What the Buffett award lets us do is push even further towards transdisciplinary work — research that transcends traditional academic boundaries — to be able to more creatively, justly and effectively address environmental challenges. 

“As we move forward over the next two years, our team will continue to cultivate multidimensional growth to put us and Northwestern in a better position to lead cutting edge global environmental research and generate impact,” Suiseeya said. “Multidimensional means that we look at ourselves as researchers, at our relationships and understandings amongst various disciplines, and learn to cultivate humility and listening so we can work with — and for — frontline communities.”

In addition, Dunn’s and Suiseeya’s team included representatives from the Northwestern Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR) in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, ensuring what Dunn called “an invaluable perspective that kept us grounded.” 

“We look forward to working with Indigenous communities here in the U.S. and, potentially, around the globe, as well as other front-line, marginalized communities both urban and rural experiencing the brunt of environmental challenges,” she said. “I can’t wait to get started and advance NU’s reputation as a leader in transdisciplinary, community-based approaches to addressing pressing environmental challenges.”

Patty Loew, CNAIR co-director and a professor at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, observed, “We are excited to work with amazing scholars who are committed to working with Indigenous communities that face imminent environmental challenges like climate change. Some of these communities have strong traditional ecological knowledge and have been adapting to intense pressures for hundreds of years. They may have as much to share with us as we will share with them.”

Like others, Loew noted that she appreciated helpful advice from the panel, such as including other Indigenous peoples from across the globe in the research. She said, “I think this makes a lot of sense. One of the strengths of having an interdisciplinary team and the support of the Buffett Institute is that we have relationships around the world. 

“Our CNAIR affiliates understand that successful research begins with relationships,” she added. “Several of us already have relationships with Maori in New Zealand and First Nations in Australia, so the suggestion is very compatible with who we are.”

The panel of five judges selected by the Buffett Institute included:

  • Bonnie Daniels, chair of the Weinberg College Board of Visitors and Northwestern trustee
  • Sarah Fodor, executive director, Northwestern’s Office of Foundation Relations and Corporate Engagement
  • Henry Godinez, professor, Northwestern Department of Theatre, and resident artistic associate, Goodman Theatre
  • Larry Irving, founder and president, The Irving Information Group, and Northwestern trustee
  • Ravina Shamdasani, deputy spokesperson, United Nations Human Rights Office

Afterwards, the judges spoke enthusiastically of the experience of participating in the inaugural Buffett workshop, one of the institute’s new initiatives to be held annually, bringing faculty from across the University together with diverse participants from the arts, industry, civil society and government.  

“I felt so honored and humbled to sit there in front of such incredible scholars and thinkers, Godinez said after the event. “Each one of those teams and projects will undoubtedly make the world a better place. Having to choose one was extremely difficult and daunting.

“I think what Annelise Riles has done during her brief time at the Buffett Institute is incredible, and this Idea Incubator Workshop is a prime example,” he added. “It is a wonderful, and frankly, brilliant idea to create a space where faculty can collaborate across disciplines to create change by addressing the most pressing issues of our time. It embodies creative thinking and problem solving. Think of what an inspiring message that sends our students.

“For us in theatre, that spirit of collaboration is at the very heart of the values we seek to foster and instill in our students,” Godinez observed. “You better believe the privilege of being part of this first Idea Incubator Workshop at Buffett has got me thinking about possible collaborations with colleagues across Northwestern!”

Fodor, a fellow panelist, sounded a similar theme, noting, “I was deeply honored that Annelise Riles asked me to serve on this distinguished panel of judges, to help evaluate the final pitches of these talented groups of faculty. All three groups addressed pressing global issues and featured strong interdisciplinary teams seeking solutions. I look forward to bringing the expertise of my office of Foundation Relations to bear to identify potential funders for these priority projects.”

Fodor noted she is already working with researchers in the palliative care group to assist them as well, starting with prospect research and proposal development. She is offering strategic advice and proposal review and helping them frame their proposals to the particular foundation audience where they may seek additional support.

The workshop also drew researchers from outside Northwestern to bring their expertise to bear on the challenges discussed. One attendee from the external community was Serguei Parkhomenko, senior advisor at the Kennan Institute in Washington, D.C. Parkhomenko, whose work involves Russian media navigating the challenges of doing journalism in a totalitarian state, worked on the censorship, propaganda and persecution of journalists project and discussed the value of participating in the workshop.

“This is a first step for me to establish a connection with the Medill School,” he noted. “The most important outcome for me also was to establish contact and present my program to the Buffett Institute. Northwestern can be a wonderful partner for this program. This was an opportunity for starting a long-term partnership.”

For the environmental project, team members are being invited to continue their collaborative work for two years, forming working groups. Each of these groups will be backed by a package of Buffett support, including funding, fundraising help, graduate assistantships and a staffing team to assist with operations. In this case, it is equivalent to $150,000 in support.

The goal is to further refine these proposed research solutions for global challenges and then work to implement them with global stakeholders who can generate the greatest social impact, including through work with policymakers, lawmakers or civil society groups.

Riles expects the workshop results will encourage more faculty to participate. “We hope that faculty will propose an idea,” she said. “Once they do, we will convene a lunch or afternoon tea to convene researchers from across the campus for an open ended and exploratory discussion.

“We are running these lunches all the time and are eager to get the word out to our faculty about this opportunity. The feedback has been really positive on the whole — people are delighted to meet for the first time others with related research interests in other departments or schools,” she said.

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