September 13, 2021

UNM-led Project Receives $15 Million from NSF EPSCoR

Image of Mark Stone


By Brittney Van Der Werff

Researchers at The University of New Mexico are leading a $15 million, five-year project funded by the National Science Foundation that will engage communities in the American Intermountain West to collaboratively address the impacts of climate change, including drought, wildfires and community well-being.

The Transformation Network is a multi-disciplinary research effort based at UNM that represents diverse communities, sectors, disciplines and backgrounds that is aimed at improving regional sustainability.

The project is being co-funded by the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and the NSF INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) program.

The project started September 15 and is being led by Mark Stone, professor in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering at UNM. It is part of $30 million in funding that the NSF announced this week to create two new research networks to understand and design innovative and equitable solutions that build community resilience.

The Network is composed of UNM and seven other universities: Colorado State University, the University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University, Washington State University, Utah State University, New Mexico Tech and New Mexico State University. The Network has also partnered with over 50 organizations across the American Intermountain West to elevate the Network’s capacity.

Stone, who is also director of UNM’s Resilience Institute, said the massive impacts of climate change have affected the western United States especially hard in recent years. Much of the area has been stressed by rapid urban population growth while at the same time having to deal with catastrophic wildfires and extended drought. The Nework’s research focuses on both Tribal and rural communities to understand how systemic inequities have compounded climate change impacts. This approach provides an opportunity to utilize knowledge systems from both communities and to work towards equitable research and management practices.

“We want the Network to be a resource for the Intermountain West in developing innovative and equitable solutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change. To achieve our goal, we must also work towards racial and environmental justice,” Stone said.

He said the Network’s approach is unique because it will be developing solutions from a broad set of communities and perspectives.

“Our approach, involving collaborators from a variety of institutions, disciplines and organizations, relies heavily on grassroots knowledge, especially in Tribal and rural communities. Indigenous and local knowledge systems are often ignored in resource management decisions. We’re eager to develop solutions that respect Indigenous and local practices in combination with multi-disciplinary research to become disruptors in this area. That’s how things change — from the bottom up.”

The research network includes components of both research findings and educational plans and focuses on how headwaters and headwater-dependent systems, regional food-energy-water systems, and innovative institutions and approaches to governance can be integrated to help direct urban and rural systems along trajectories that result in a sustainable future for humans and the environment. The focus is on three regions — the upper Rio Grande/San Juan River watersheds; the Colorado Front Range corridor; and the inland Pacific Northwest — that share challenges of population growth, wildfires and shrinking water supplies.

Network research projects and educational activities will be designed to produce knowledge with regional partners and utilize a novel framework for what is known as “guided transformation,” which incorporates diverse perspectives, including Indigenous and place-based knowledge, as well as valuing community and environmental well-being.

Stone said during the duration of the project, the Network has several goals:

  • Improving understanding of interlinked urban and rural systems feedbacks, processes and actors;
  • Creating a diverse and engaged network of Intermountain West partners to advance understanding of community needs and explore sustainable solutions;
  • Training a new cohort of scientists and leaders with expertise in convergent, complex systems thinking; and
  • Documenting and sharing the processes for developing sustainable urban and rural systems through a guided transformation framework.

The research network also includes an extensive educational outreach component, funded by the Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) Program, which seeks to enhance STEM education and participation at HSIs like UNM. This will translate into a variety of research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students, in addition to outreach activities that will focus on attracting K-12 students into STEM disciplines, especially at HSIs.

Stone also said that the Network will expand existing partnerships between universities, state and local governments, nongovernmental organizations, and Tribal, rural and urban communities.

“Our hope is that the research and best practices generated from the Network will not just improve the sustainability in the communities we are directly working with, but that we will strengthen connections with a wide variety of partners while supporting community self- determination.”

Link to original press release