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No going back

Fall/Winter 2013 | By Paul Robbins

Like just about everyone else on campus, I’ve been inspired and energized by our new chancellor, Rebecca Blank. She’s been clear about her commitment to UW-Madison’s continued excellence and international leadership and to educational innovation. That’s music to our ears.  

Even better: Chancellor Blank identifies the environment as a high-priority area for cutting-edge research and engaged education — and has given the Nelson Institute a big shout-out on a number of occasions. Take her remarks in October before an all-campus gathering of academic leaders and boards of visitors:  

Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins

“Increasingly, the most interesting work is at the intersection of disciplines that come together around big social, economic, health-related problems,” she said. “Places like the Waisman Center, the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies are at the forefront of this type of interdisciplinary research.”  

Of course, we’ve been at it since the institute was founded in 1970 as a pioneer in collaborative research and education. We’re proud of our 43-year track record, but we’re not resting on it. Who has time, given the unprecedented rate and scale of environmental challenges? We all know the list by now: the climate is rapidly changing, we’re losing biodiversity faster than we can track, and human population continues to grow and urbanize. The world is shaping up to be unlike anything we’ve seen before and the future can’t be easily predicted from the past. We’ve entered the Anthropocene.

For environmental science and decision-making, this means that the new worlds in front of us are going to spring both from our stepping back and letting environmental systems change and evolve on their own, but also often from our stepping in and applying our science, creativity and principles of design to craft the Earth. Most sobering, it means having the wisdom and ethics to know when to do which.  

What does that mean for the Nelson Institute? It means we need to double down on the work we’re doing and, in many cases, the way we’re doing it. But it also means we need to innovate. We need to create a next generation of problem solvers who are dedicated both to the science of environmental change but also sorting the political, social and economic contexts that are proliferating these new climates, landscapes and ecologies. They’ll need to hit the Anthropocene ground running.

We need to strengthen interdisciplinary research, bringing together the best minds from the fields you’d expect – the sciences, medicine, law and so on – and some that might surprise you, such as the arts and humanities. We’re already a national leader in doing that, of course, but the potential to do more is nearly unlimited.  

“The world is
shaping up to
be unlike anything
we’ve seen before
and the future can’t
be easily predicted
from the past.”

We also need to find new resources to provide all of our students with real-world experiences. We already provide an extraordinary number of opportunities through capstone classes, workshops, internships and our Community Environmental Scholars Program, and we’re working on new ideas at both the undergraduate and graduate levels to get our students out into the world, helping transform communities and improve lives, as they earn their degrees. We want to take the Nelson Institute tradition of service learning and strap it to a rocket – to make real impacts an integral part of every student’s experience. We’re thinking big, and I’ll have more to say later about our ideas as they take shape.  

Finally, I want to spotlight another Nelson Institute innovation that’s about to launch: our new professional master’s degree in Environmental Conservation. It’s a fast-track program designed to train conservation leaders in practical interdisciplinary skills, ideal for professionals who need to develop new capacities and get back into the working world as quickly as possible.  

This is our first new professional degree program, developed in response to the chancellor’s call for educational innovation, but it won’t be our last. We’re looking at a number of ideas to address emerging needs for environmental training in the Anthropocene. The global environment is changing, and so is the landscape of higher education, and we’re working hard to adapt and forge a new path forward. Because, like it or not, there’s no going back.  

Paul Robbins sig
Paul Robbins
Director, Nelson Institute



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