The Earth Institute

Columbia’s Earth Institute blends research in the physical and social sciences, education and practical solutions to help guide the world onto a path toward sustainability.

Created in 1996, Columbia University’s Earth Institute is a new form of research and academic organization designed to institutionalize interaction among many academic fields and professional disciplines to address the problems of global sustainability. We have built a truly interdisciplinary community to understand and address these issues. We bring together the people and tools needed across ecology, engineering, environmental science, law, public health, economics, public policy, and management to help address the problems of climate change, energy, ecosystem maintenance, water quality, food production, air quality, and the manufacture of goods and services with the least possible environmental impact.

The Earth Institute’s mission is to develop programs of research, education, outreach and practical application of knowledge to address the critical issues of global sustainability. The Earth Institute works to expand our understanding of the earth as one integrated system – studying the earth and its environment, human society and the interaction between the two – and training a new generation of interdisciplinary practitioners equipped with the tools to address this great challenge. What distinguishes us from many other university-based organizations is our willingness to engage directly with stakeholders in long-term efforts to improve sustainable development; help introduce new technologies, policies, and institutional approaches to solve real-world problems; and evaluate what does or does not work.

Collaboration across disciplinary boundaries has always been and should continue to be a cornerstone of the Earth Institute’s research. The Earth Institute has created a multidisciplinary community that spans three campuses, most schools, and close to two-dozen departments. We have created the Earth Institute Faculty to bring together colleagues from schools, departments, and research centers to learn about one another’s work and to engage in the academic governance of our Institute. We established programs such as the Cross-Cutting Initiative, the sustainable development seminar series, and the post-doctoral fellows program to facilitate collaborative work on interdisciplinary problems. We assist faculty and research scientist teams in forming and staffing ad-hoc working groups to respond to specific calls for proposals.

But we think we can do more to exploit the cross-disciplinary strengths of our community around large projects that involve teams from across the entire Institute, which is the motivation for the Climate Adaptation Initiative. We can more strategically organize and centrally support large-scale research projects while also continuing to facilitate and support the research collaborations that organically form within the Earth Institute due to overlapping interests and the inherent interconnections within the problems we seek to address. This will complement the largely decentralized model of curiosity-driven individual and collective research that is the core of our work by adding one venue that is explicitly Institute-wide and used to bring the community together. With the foundation we have built over the last twenty years, we can now bring together the various disciplines using a more integrated, systematic approach with resources centrally to support the work.